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Jim Wolfe’s Lifetime of Service to Canandaigua

He turned his insurance career into leading a commercial renaissance in downtown Canandaigua, an accomplishment that took 25 years and outstanding community-building skills

By John Addyman

Jim Wolfe is the owner of Wolfe Insurance Agency in Canandaigua.

Every town needs a Jim Wolfe.

Somebody everyone knows, has met or heard about — a guide, a friend. A community colleague. A guy you feel good doing business with. A dad and a granddad.

And in Canandaigua, someone who led a 25-year turnaround for the city’s mercantile heart, a change that resurrected the downtown, bringing it back from the edge of irrelevance.

“Would I say he’s a civic citizen?” said Joe DelForte, who has known Wolfe for decades. “He’s one of the best. He really cares about Canandaigua. His involvement with the downtown was keeping storefronts full so people have many places to shop and the downtown is attractive to people from outside the community.”

“Canandaigua means a lot to him. Not only does he go out of his way to try to make things better, but he’s a good organizer. He gets people together and they work well together to get things done. He’s not the guy who sits back and asks, ‘What do you need from me?’ He’s the guy who says, ‘Here’s what we need to do next,’” he added.

Wolfe, 72, a lifelong insurance man, has lived in Canandaigua for almost 50 years. He’s the son of a Methodist preacher who answered calls in Gorham, Williamson, Corning and Geneva. Young Wolfe learned how to make new friends in a lot of places and following the lead of his parents, how to be a servant in helping others.

And when your chosen career is selling insurance, making friends and serving others goes a long way. His customers became friends; his friends brought him new business; new business helped protect the new vitality and security of Canandaigua and its surroundings.

For all of that, Wolfe is deeply grateful.

He graduated from Geneva High School, got his business degree from Lycoming College in Pennsylvania and started working at his uncle’s Nationwide Insurance agency in Penn Yan. The company moved him to Canandaigua in April, 1974. He’ll celebrate 50 years in the insurance business next April.

“I started my career knocking on doors,” Wolfe said, sitting in his second-floor office on South Main Street, overlooking the corner where he started by renting a shared space across the street. Now he owns the building and the one next to it.

“Going door-to-door was tough, but I was really motivated because I wanted to be successful and I knew this was the only way to do it. They had just built all these public complexes up in Farmington. I found out that if I went in and knocked on a door, most of them didn’t have renter’s insurance.

“I didn’t want people to think I was just a hustler coming in, so, I would knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, I’m Jim Wolfe from Nationwide Insurance’ and I’d put my hands up and say, ‘I didn’t stop to sell you insurance tonight. I was just wondering if you had renter’s insurance to cover your furniture if there were a water pipe break in the apartment above you that ruined your stereo and TV or if there were a fire downstairs and smoke gets in. And they’d say, ‘No! We don’t. Come on in!’”

Then Wolfe would shake his head.

“No, I have another appointment in the area tonight, but let’s make an appointment for next week and I’ll stop by,” he’d say.

“Then I would go back and talk to them and they were ready for me and I’d end up selling them car insurance, life insurance and renter’s insurance,” he said.

He became a denizen of apartment complex parking lots.

“I was single at the time. I’d be out selling every night. What I found out about these apartment complexes, there was always a local guy who was bored, worked in Rochester and didn’t know anybody. I became buddies with him. After I had an appointment at one place, on my way home I’d swing by the complex — and I had a guy in every complex. I’d have a beer with him and he’d say, ‘You know, Jim, Charlie just moved into at 206, I’ll get him for you.’ It got so I would pull into the parking lot and the little kids would all follow me say, ‘Jim’s here! Jim’s here!’”

He still has some of those first customers, but now they’re more than friends: they’re family.

Wolfe’s office grew slowly at first, but his willingness to go the extra mile for customers built him a reputation in Canandaigua circles.

“By 1982, I noticed a marked turn,” he said. “I had been in the community long enough and I was getting accepted. Leaders of Kiwanis Club were coming to me. I paid my dues. I went out of my way to help people. If somebody had a claim that was questionable, I’d go out to meet them at their house and look at it the issue myself and look for solutions to help people, not to sell policies.

“I have a genuine interest to help people. I get a lot of satisfaction. If there’s a claim that’s denied and I think the insurance company is wrong, I’ll call the company on it. I’ll explain to the adjuster or engineer, whoever. It’s the right thing to do.”

He wins more of these challenges than he loses. He knows his customer and can make a compelling reason for the company to reconsider.

“What that translates to is people send their friends to me. I did it to help people, but in turn, it developed a network. I could see that was a winning combination,” he explained. “I developed a marketing program — ‘Life’s tough, but you don’t need insurance problems, you need insurance solutions. For solutions to your insurance problems, call Jim Wolfe.’”

After more than 20 years with one insurance company, Wolfe switched to Erie Insurance in 1999 and hasn’t looked back.

There were other issues changing for him and for Canandaigua as well.

A slow rebirth

“In 1989, downtown Canandaigua was in horrible shape,” he explained. “Fifty percent of the stores were empty. The 50% that were occupied, only half of that was legitimate businesses. The rest were drug shops. It was horrible. Downtown merchants had a little merchants’ association. It was designed to do rinky-dink promotions and also collect enough dues from everybody to pay for plowing sidewalks through the winter and to put up lights on the street at Christmastime.”

“The city was doing some things legislatively and a big rift developed among the merchants and the property owners and the office holders. They wouldn’t speak to each other, so Denise Chaapel, who owns Sweet Expressions, called me up and said, ‘Jim, we’ve got a problem with this merchants’ association. You’ve got friends on both sides of the aisle. You’re the only one who can create some community here,’” he continued. “Bill Bridgeo, the city manager at the time, told me there was a conference in Maryland about business improvement districts. He wanted us to send two people from the merchants’ association and he’d send two people from the city. ‘See what you learn,’ he said to me.”

They came back from the conference and said, ‘everything we’re trying to do in downtown is wrong.’

“They came back with the secret sauce. You have to have a broad-based community committee, including property owners and merchants from downtown but also bankers and lawyers and community residents who just like to shop here. Bring them all together on a committee and see what they want to do with the downtown,” Wolfe said.

And so the Downtown Tomorrow Task Force was formed, with Wolfe as the chairman.

Merchants trying to do business in Canandaigua knew the drive down Main Street was distressing. The explosion of malls had sucked so much out of little towns and cities nationwide — few municipalities had a clue how to combat the change and re-establish a thriving business center a community could call its own.

What could Canandaigua do?

The task force began its work.

“We get these 40, 45 people in a meeting and there were 40, 45 ideas of what downtown ought to look like,” Wolfe said, the image bright in his memory. “Then, as a group, we decided to get a request for proposal from an independent consulting firm to see what downtown should be. We got a really good consultant from Washington, DC. We had to raise $30,000 to pay for the survey. We did it and then it came back and said that downtown Canandaigua was specifically positioned to be a specialty retail district. ‘You have the right amount of square footage to support your primary and secondary markets, but you should be specialty retail and don’t overdevelop the buildings to make it too expensive for mom-and-pop-type businesses. Stick to specialty retail,’ the consultant said.”

“In the second year, we hired another consultant to take the plan and go around showing that plan to every property owner and every merchant and review the results. We would say to them, ‘If we were to come up with a plan, what would you like added?’ So now everybody had seen the plan and felt some input into it,” he said.

The leap of faith

“The third year we had a vote, at the city level, a permissive referendum on the plan. Voters approved it and city council approved it. Part of this was; we had to ask the property owners to pay an extra tax. Think about it — you have a guy who’s got a vacant business and he’s going to pay an extra tax. It just showed the character of the people we have in Canandaigua. They could just see that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Now Canandaigua had a Business Improvement District.

“The first 25 years were the reconstruction years,” Wolfe said. “We had 70 people involved in this. I had such a privilege to work with all these phenomenal people. My big job was just to organize it. The city has donated generously to us because it’s good for business and real estate values.”

And, the BID did more than change the facades of businesses and help new proprietors move in. There are five big festival and celebrations (Arts & Music, Christmas, Fall, Ice, and Fourth of July) each year. They’re not to make money, but to give back.

“We created a vision,” Wolfe said. “Before, everyone was just bickering about what they wanted the city to do. They all had a different vision. An outside expert came in and told us, ‘This is what you want to be, lay provisions out to be a specialty retail district. Don’t try to get Walmart down here. Keep the spaces the way they are.’ There were arguments about converting storefronts into offices and how much square footage we needed. They reassured us the size of downtown was the perfect size to service our primary and secondary markets.”

Any question about the result of 25 years of cooperative effort — something that started out as quite a risk — is answered on the BID’s Facebook pages. The vitality of the Canandaigua downtown leaps off the screen.

Lessons, perspective

Wolfe has friends across the state who know about Canandaigua’s success story. They ask him about that “secret sauce.”

“There are several things,” Wolfe said, counting them out on his fingers. “First, you have to have unity among key people who want to come together to work on the problem. Second, you can’t do it without city funding. The city has to be involved. Council members will profess, ‘Well, they’re private property — they should be on their own.’ But it’s our main street and we want it to be nice.

“You also have to have the quality of people who see the big picture. Every main street is a fingerprint. They’re not all the same. They have different markets. What worked for us might not work for somebody else. You have to have a professional come in and tell you what your problem is and what you can do about it.”

Wolfe points to the 70 people involved in turning Canandaigua around. “We have unusual people here. You see them in the churches and everywhere,” he said. “These people care. Canandaigua has that spirit.”

He recognizes that spirit in others and the feeling is reciprocated.

“He’s a very hard worker and when he gets focused on something, you can’t interrupt him,” said his wife, Patty. “There’s no stopping him until he finishes. He’s very caring. He’s all about family balance for the people who work for him, working mothers only work four days a week. He gives them an extra day off.”

She said there’s something about her husband that’s unique.

“He and I can know the same person, but he can tell by the look in their eyes if they need somebody to talk to and he’s able to draw out so much information because he’s able to read them, it’s a gift,” she said. “He just knows so much about people and he remembers days and details. It’s amazing.”

“Everybody knows Jim,” said longtime business acquaintance Jim Terwilliger. “He’s very friendly, very honest and there to help if you need help. A good friend.”

Sal Pietropaolo, a former director of the BID, said Wolfe’s leadership was a key in the BID success.

“He was in it for the long haul. He had a lot of insight into what had happened in the past. He applied for grants, set budgets and it was all quality work. We were not just shooting from the hip,” Pietropaolo said.

Chris Keyes, from Canandaigua National Bank, saw what the BID was doing and Wolfe’s role in it.

“He’s been a big part in the growth the community has seen. The BID is always looking for continued growth of the downtown and that’s part of what Jim was very invested in, to enhance the quality of life in the greater community,” he said.

“Each building in the BID had its own story,” said Wolfe. “Developing the downtown took a lot of fortitude and a lot of time. For me, this was pure satisfaction.”