Downtown Ithaca: A Melting Pot Of Merchants
The diversity of their backgrounds reflects the diversity of the city they live in. Their roots are scattered across the globe, and reads like a high school geography exam… Austria, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Ghana, Syria, the Ivory Coast, and Afghanistan, to name a few. And, while their backgrounds and the city they call home are diverse, they share a common bond. They’re all merchants in downtown Ithaca and their businesses make up many of the one-of-a-kind galleries, shops and eateries that have made the Ithaca Commons a destination for people from around the world.
16 percent of the City of Ithaca’s population was born outside of the U.S., according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 26 percent of the city’s population is non-white, and in a state where females own 29 percent of the businesses, the Census Bureau reports the figure is 38 percent in the City of Ithaca.
In downtown Ithaca alone, better than 20 percent of the 150 businesses in the Business Improvement District are owned or co-owned by people who immigrated to the United States.
But, if you talk to these business owners, they’ll tell you the only way they see themselves is as entrepreneurs who believe that downtown Ithaca’s big-city cosmopolitan feel in a small town makes it the best place for them to achieve success and their goals.
Alta Spa owner Awura-Abena grew up in the African nation of Ghana. She says she falls back on the African tradition of focusing on small talk and sharing pleasantries with clients, and it goes a long way toward turning them into repeat customers.
Awura-Abena, who was living in Canada before coming to Ithaca with her family, says small talk and pleasantries are why Alta Spa’s customers continue to come back, despite the economic slowdown. She believes people will always budget for services such as a visit to the spa, when they’re treated well and shown appreciation in a pleasant environment. Awura-Abena is also convinced that downtown Ithaca is a much better location for the type of environment Alta Spa wants to create, than Route 13 or the Pyramid Mall. She points to its concentration of other businesses in a relatively small area, its multinational flavor, tourism appeal, and central location to Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the surrounding communities.
At the other end of the Ithaca Commons is Ithacuts. Owner Akoko Semon was born and grew up in Africa’s Ivory Coast. She and her husband came to Ithaca so he could attend Cornell, and Akoko herself later took some courses to further her education. The couple eventually decided they liked the small but cosmopolitan feel of downtown Ithaca and wanted to stay.
When the opportunity to purchase Ithacuts arose, Akoko jumped at the chance to take over an established business with a clientele reflecting both the downtown and City of Ithaca populations as a whole. People from all backgrounds come through the door at Ithacuts and Akoko says she sees it as a reflection of downtown’s diversity.
Downtown Ithaca’s pedestrian-friendly environment also appeals to Akoko, who says Ithacuts benefits from the foot traffic it creates, because pedestrians are more likely to stop and come in than those who are driving by. Downtown’s compact size is also a benefit, because it means people who live in the neighborhoods around downtown can walk to Ithacuts fairly quickly. Downtown’s pedestrian-friendly nature also turns tourists and visitors who are walking by into Ithacuts customers.
Emma Lou Sheikh, who is a co-owner of House of Shalimar, T-Shirt Express, and Ithacards, joins Akoko Semon and Awura-Abena as one of downtown’s women business owners. Emma Lou is from New Jersey. Her husband and business partner Abdul Razak Sheikh came to the U.S. from Pakistan in 1960. He says that as a child watching American movies in Pakistan, the U.S. was portrayed as the land of endless opportunities.
The Sheikhs opened the original House of Shalimar in 1970 in New York City. Two years later, the first local House of Shalimar opened in Collegetown. The couple then expanded into downtown Ithaca. Today, summer is the busiest season for the House of Shalimar. T-Shirt
Express is known around the world for its selection of Ithaca is Gorges tees, and Ithacards fills a niche in downtown that hasn’t been served for several years. Abdul Sheikh’s dreams of the land of opportunity have in many ways, come true for him.
He and Emma Lou own three businesses. He lives in an area he describes as a “paradise,” when referring to its scenic beauty. He also notes the area is not overly populated and very safe to live in.
Ithaca’s natural beauty also caught the eye of Austrian-born Michael Horsing, who owns Brotchen. Horsing visited Ithaca in 1992 and was immediately reminded of the village he grew up in. Horsing apprenticed as a pastry chef for his grandfather, who owned a bakery Horsing describes as very similar to Brotchen in both look and atmosphere. He also apprenticed in Italy with Alfredo Di Roma, who is often associated with Fettuccini Alfredo, and the two later went to Orlando, Florida where they opened and operated the Italian food court at Epcot Center.
Horsing says he waited five years for Brotchen’s Ithaca Commons location to become available, because it would allow him to create an environment and ambience that reflects “old Europe.” He says Brotchen would not be the same in the strip mall environment of Route 13 or cookie-cutter approach at the Pyramid Mall. Austrians take pride in a good cup of coffee and Brotchen has a master barista on staff. Brotchen’s small size, its selection of palate-tempting treats and burgeoning art gallery featuring local artists all create a coziness that are staples of the pastry and coffee shops he remembers as a child.
Unique World co-owner Yehuala Terefe immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia… a country she describes as very spiritual and with a culture that values being friendly to others and treating them with respect. She and her partner Alan Cameron chose Ithaca and downtown in particular, primarily for the clientele and type of shoppers that downtown appeals to… those with a taste for the eclectic and a desire to follow their own path. They both felt that the big box, mainstream, mass merchandise approach to retailing that’s found on Ithaca’s Route 13 corridor, or at the Pyramid Mall in Lansing, was not what they wanted or were looking for.
Terefe and Cameron both envisioned a business that combined fashion and artwork. The couple was living in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but Cameron was familiar with Ithaca. Terefe says she knew after her first visit that downtown Ithaca would be the perfect location for their business concept. The two commuted from Scranton every day for the first six months Unique World was open.
For many people, such as Horsing and Sheikh, Ithaca’s gorges, waterfalls, and Cayuga Lake were reasons to visit and eventually stay here. For Awura-Abena, whose spouse’s job brought her family to Ithaca, it created an opportunity to own and operate the type of business she’d always wanted to open. For Akoko Semon, it was her desire to do better and get ahead.
And, Ithaca’s big-city cosmopolitan feel in a small town can always be a factor in someone’s decision to make Ithaca their home. It was for Terefe and Cameron.
It’s been said that Academia meets Appalachia in Ithaca like no place else on earth. It should come as no surprise then, that a city that attracts scholars and visitors from around the world would also attract business owners from the four corners of the planet as well.
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