ITHACA, NY – Without Ithaca entrepreneur Stu Lewis, who passed away last week at age 81, downtown Ithaca might look very different today.

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At Tuesday’s Tompkins County Legislature meeting, several legislators took a moment to speak in remembrance of the influential businessman, noting how his hard work and creativity helped mold the Ithaca Commons and the rest of downtown.

According to his obituary, Stuart went into business in Ithaca in 1956, opening Stuart’s Clothiers, Furnishers and Importers in Collegetown. He opened a new store in Ithaca every five years, eventually owning six businesses — four on Commons, one in Collegetown and one in the Triphammer Mall — which he called “Ithaca’s Circle of Fashion.”

Legislator Jim Dennis explained the role that Lewis played in the development of the Commons when it was first being built in the early 70s. At that time, there was a big question of how the city would pay for the Commons. They decided to create the “Commons Benefit District,” which taxed business owners for the sidewalks in front of their shops.

Needless to say, many business owners weren’t happy with that plan, since they were already paying property taxes. However, Lewis was a believer in the plan — and owned at least four businesses on the Commons himself — and went door to door to helped sell the idea.

“It’s hard to overstate how amazing this man was for small business in Ithaca,” said Legislator Carol Chock. “Imagine a business owner coming to other business owners and saying, ‘We should be taxed, we should pay an additional tax,’ and getting business owners to sign on to that.”

“At a time when downtowns were dying all over the place, he found a way to work with the city and work with other business owners to rebuild downtown,” she added.

Lewis was also well known as an adviser and supporter to other business owners and would-be entrepreneurs. He might even have had a hand in one of the world’s biggest fashion brands: Tommy Hilfiger.

Dennis shared another anecdote, talking about how Lewis not only helped local business owners but also those from other areas. Hilfiger got his business start in Elmira with a store called, “The People’s Place.” When that store failed after a few years, Dennis says that Stu Lewis helped Hilfiger develop the business sense that made him a national name.

“He had a perspective that few others in the community had. He walked the walk, talked the talk and made a great contribution to the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County as a whole,” Dennis said.

According to his obituary, Lewis is survived by his wife and three children and seven grandchildren. A funeral service and celebration of his life was held on Wednesday, Apr. 20.

(Featured photo courtesy of Legacy.com)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.