By Margaret McCormick
Developer and real estate broker Stephen Skinner making his mark in Syracuse neighborhood
Last year, Syracuse developer and real estate broker Stephen Skinner, a Republican, challenged Democrat Peggy Chase in the race for 9th District Onondaga County legislator. It was his first run for public office.
The 9th district is made up of several parts of Syracuse, including sections of the North Side, Eastwood, East Side and the Syracuse University area. If elected, Skinner said at the time, he would advocate for more street lighting and security cameras, speed bumps to help deter chronic speeding, and more funding for youth recreation and after-school programs, among other things.
“I believe I am the best choice to serve as the 9th district legislator, not because of what I say, but because of what I am already doing,’’ Skinner told The Post-Standard.
In the end, Chase won another term. And Skinner returned to doing what he has been doing for the last 20-plus years: working to make the Eastwood neighborhood — his home base — a better place to live, work and play.
Eastwood, dubbed “The Village Within the City,’’ is about two miles east of downtown Syracuse and bordered roughly by Teall Avenue to the west, Thompson Road to the east, Burnet Avenue–Route 690 to the south and the jagged city limits line to the north. It has more than 6,000 homes, many dating to the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, according to the Eastwood Neighborhood Association. The streets are tree-lined and walkable, and the neighborhood is home to several parks and recreation spaces.
The neighborhood has a close-knit, small-town vibe and a community spirit that residents embrace. That includes a busy business district, especially on James Street, the neighborhood’s main corridor.
Even if you haven’t spent much time in Eastwood, per se, you might have attended a show at the Palace Theatre (which Skinner owns), checked out the titles at Books End Bookshop or Books and Melodies, or attempted the “Frittata Challenge’’ at Mother’s Cupboard, a hole-in-the-wall diner that’s been featured on the Travel Channel.
Skinner is well-known in Eastwood and his roots there run deep. His grandparents, Wesley and Charlotte Skinner, opened the original Sacred Melody store on Salina Street in Syracuse, which sold bibles, Christian books and records. The business moved to the Eastwood Plaza on James Street in the 1980s, where it remains. Stephen Skinner started working there as teenager in the 1990s.
Skinner, 43, spent much of his youth in Kirkville, where he lived with his family in what he describes as a sheltered, “faith-centered environment.’’ In 1999, after spending several years in sales and feeling “no sense of purpose and destiny,’’ he felt “called” to direct his energy to Eastwood, help erase blight and bring business back to the empty storefronts he saw there.
Over the next few years, he slowly started to renovate and expand the Eastwood Plaza and recruit other businesses, including the original Café Kubal location. He also started a lawn mowing and snowplowing business.
“From there,’’ Skinner said, “focusing on Eastwood has been what we do.’’
In 2015, Skinner established Skinner and Associates Realty, a real estate firm focused on commercial and residential properties.
“That’s when we really started to move to the next level,’’ Skinner said.
The following year, Skinner purchased the Palace Theatre, a movie house and entertainment venue operated by members of the DiBella and Heagerty families for more than 90 years.
In all, Skinner said, he has renovated hundreds of homes and helped more than 60 businesses get established in Syracuse. These include destinations like Eastwood Brewing Company, located on the back side of Eastwood Plaza; Sinbad, a Middle Eastern restaurant on James Street and Found Things Co., a plant store that started off on James Street and now occupies a renovated former garage on Collingwood Avenue.
“In essence we are their landlords,’’ Skinner explained.
Recent additions to the James Street corridor include The Curd Nerd, a boutique cheese shop; Cracked Bean Roastery, a coffee shop next to The Palace Theatre; and Marketplace on James, a consortium of vintage dealers, artists and “cottage industry businesses.’’ All are in buildings owned and renovated by Skinner.
Skinner’s real estate office is at the Midler House, 2649 James St., the former Welter-Price Funeral Home. He rents space there to several micro businesses focused on personal care, including a massage therapist.
“I get a lot of phone calls,’’ Skinner said. “People call us with a vision they have for something and from there we will help support them.’’
Skinner has his own vision for the neighborhood he, his wife, Katrina, and their four children call home. He would much rather see a candle shop or cheese shop in Eastwood than a vape shop or another convenience store and he is especially pleased to have found new tenants for two former “nuisance bars,’’ The East Room (now Sinbad) and the Tip-A-Few Tavern
(Marketplace on James).
The business owner funds a weekly street clean-up crew and it’s not unusual to see him out picking up litter on Eastwood streets himself. He has advocated for pet waste stations in the neighborhood, upgrades to community parks and a James Street lighting district that would brighten the business corridor with more attractive light posts and energy-efficient lighting. To help fund some of these projects, he has formed a nonprofit organization called Growing Good Works, to which people can make donations.
Skinner isn’t without his critics in what he calls “the village.’’ His biggest project to date, which was recently approved by the city, will bring 29 upscale apartments to the former William Howard Taft School on James Street – and has spurred some talk that he is trying to gentrify the neighborhood. The building is currently occupied by American Legion Post 1276, which plans to move to the former Friendly’s restaurant building a few blocks to the east.
“I’m basically doing this out of love,’’ Skinner said of his dedication to Eastwood. “This has taken 23 years of my life. When I tell people I live and breathe Eastwood, I live and breathe it. It doesn’t consume part of me, it takes all of me.’’
Joseph Nastri, a licensed real estate broker with Keller Williams Realty who has lived in Eastwood most of his life, said it takes a village to keep the “Village Within the City’’ moving forward and making positive gains. He said Eastwood has changed for the better in recent years, thanks to a corps of people who believe in it, invest in it, and dedicate their time to it (including himself and his brother, Realtor Jan Nastri).
“That’s what it takes,’’ Nastri said. “One guy can’t do it all. Steve has been great for the neighborhood. I admire him. He’s a good friend and a friendly competitor, I guess you could say. He really picked up the ball and ran with it. He’s very conscientious. He cares about what he does and who he associates with.’’
Nicole Eiffe (pronounced eaf; rhymes with leaf) is the founder of Bug, Bear & Bean, a boutique candle shop featuring hand-poured, naturally scented soy candles. She had been making the candles at home and selling them online and at a few local businesses when opportunity knocked — in the form of Stephen Skinner.
One day, Eiffe dropped off some candles at the Found Things Co. plant store. While there, store owner Sarah Hardy introduced her to Skinner. He asked Eiffe if she had plans to open a retail location.
“Eventually,’’ she told him.
A month later, she said, Skinner called to let her know he had a space open at 2721 James St., a couple doors down from Sinbad restaurant.
A year later, Eiffe said, business is good, there’s plenty of foot traffic, especially on weekends, and she’s at home in a supportive community.
“Before I had a business in Eastwood, I would shop here,’’ Eiffe said. “I would park in front of Found Things and walk around there and leave. Now there’s a coffee shop, a cheese shop, a dog-grooming business — and this is all in the last year.”
“I feel like Stephen is kind of the connection for everyone,’’ Eiffe added. “We’ve all connected in some way because of him, and we all support each other. It’s a nice camaraderie.’’
A Man of Faith, He Now Leads Forward Point Church
Stephen Skinner has always lived a faith-centered life. When the longtime Eastwood resident, developer and real estate broker isn’t consumed with the details of buying, selling, renovating and managing properties, he nourishes his spiritual side through family, community and church activities.
Skinner and his wife, Katrina, in partnership with another couple, Jimmy and Chaz-Lit Doyle, are leaders at Forward Point Church, a community of faith, hope and love that exists “to help people find purpose in Jesus.’’
Members of Forward Point gather at 10 a.m. on Sundays at the Palace Theatre in Eastwood, which Skinner owns.
Forward Point is a non-traditional church and it might be the only church in Syracuse where members and visitors can sip on espresso drinks and munch on movie theater popcorn at Sunday worship.
About 100 people show up each week, Skinner said. It’s a come-as-you-are atmosphere where everyone is welcome and connection beyond Sunday is encouraged.
“We’re a down-to-earth, modern church,’’ Skinner said. “We don’t have formal titles and we don’t have formal membership. We love our neighbors. How do we love our neighbors? By making sure everyone is welcome.’’
This summer, Forward Point is expanding its reach by opening Luv Handlz, a “weigh and pay’’ frozen yogurt shop at 2500 James St., a couple blocks from the Palace. The space is available for private events and plans call for the shop to serve crepes and bubble tea down the road.
Jimmy Doyle is the operations chairman and leader behind Luv Handlz. Skinner helped to finance the project, along with the church, and serves as vice chairman. Proceeds will benefit the church, which in turn will use it to invest in the Eastwood community by sponsoring sports teams and funding scholarships, among other things.
“Have we figured it all out yet?’’ Skinner said. “No. We believe in it. We believe in finding ways to help kids and families.’’
For more information on Forward Point Church, visit www.forwardpoint.org/home