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Dave Bunnell: Redefining “Retirement” in the Finger Lakes

Dave BunnellLike many people, Dave Bunnell and his wife, Lynne, chose the Finger Lakes region for their retirement. That was16 years ago, and he’s done pretty much everything except retire since making that decision.

He’s served on the board of at least 11 local non-profits including the Geneva Business Improvement District (BID) and the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance; purchased and renovated several commercial buildings in downtown Geneva; played a key role in moving Fox Run’s Garlic Festival to the city; and headed the development of Starkey’s Lookout, to name just a few of his activities since “retiring.”

A Rich Tapestry of a Career

Dave grew up on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania with his brother and two sisters. “I don’t know what was in the water, but we all ended up leaving the farm and getting advanced degrees.”

After attending Butler University in Indiana in business administration, he graduated magna cum laude from Indiana University Indianapolis Law School. Determined to get away from cold weather, he moved to Texas, met his wife and raised three children. One daughter still lives in Texas, another moved to Nashville, and his son recently relocated to the Finger Lakes .

Dave with his son, Jason

After a successful career as a lawyer, David developed a real estate company; became partner at a merchant banking firm; was appointed COO of Albert Fisher Fresh Foods Group; founded his own investment firm; and finally led growth efforts for Schwan Food Company, an international food processing and distribution company headquartered in Minnesota. “After 30 years in Texas, I swore I was never going to live where it was cold again. But we thought the new job at Schwan was a great opportunity and figured we could tolerate the cold for four or five years.”

Intrigued by the Finger Lakes

Dave and Lynne debated where to live after he retired from the Schwan Food Company in 2007. She wanted to go back to Texas because of the weather and proximity to their children, but Dave had another idea. “I always liked the Finger Lakes. We would come up here to see people or vacation. So, we drove around the area to determine where we wanted to start the next phase of our lives.”

Dave was intrigued by what was going on in the wine business. He had spent time in California wine country and knew that the Finger Lakes could gain a similar following. Historically, the area was known for its sweet wine but was growing a reputation, as pioneers in winemaking moved to the area. Dave wanted to be part of it.

“Geneva was sitting right in the middle of this activity but was not doing much with it. That has changed dramatically since we moved here with more than a hundred wineries in the Finger Lakes and half of them on Seneca Lake. And in the last several years, the craft beer business has become a really big deal.”

Another reason why he wanted to be in Geneva was because of his experience in Texas. “When we were in Texas, the boom started and continued at a rapid place. There was this feeling that there was nothing that couldn’t get done if they wanted it to. When we moved to Geneva, I was struck by the fact that it was the opposite. There had been years of decline, and people were somewhat defeated. I heard a lot of ‘we tried that before’ and ‘that won’t work.’ I couldn’t understand it because this was such a special place.”

Revitalizing Downtown Geneva

Dave with Jim Bates, a retired Hobart and William Smith Colleges sociology professor, who collaborated with him the Dove Block renovation

After buying a house and living in Geneva for just six weeks, Dave was done with retirement. He joined local non-profits, bought a commercial property in downtown Geneva, and his reputation as someone who got things done spread quickly. “I was sitting in my office and a couple of people from the city came by and asked if I’d be interested in renovating some properties if they could get some grant money. That kind of got me started. And I got more and more interested in that sort of thing with some great buildings here in Geneva.”

Before long, he was renovating three or four downtown buildings, including The Dove Block, a historically and architecturally significant three-story commercial building. Dave worked with Dr. James Spates, a former professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and other volunteers to renovate the building.

They used some of the space to celebrate the life of Arthur Dove, the famed modernist artist who grew up in Geneva. The Dove Block Project is a community-based cultural center devoted to fostering the arts in the Finger Lakes region. It is open to the community and offers exhibitions, events, and programs. Arthur Dove’s art is featured on The Dove Studio Wall in the building that his father, William, originally constructed in 1878.

Lynne also became involved, despite her plans to be a full-time retiree. She started an upscale home furnishings business called Annie Walker’s in the first building they bought. “Everyone thought we were stupid. They didn’t believe an upscale retail business would make it in downtown Geneva. When we were first moved here, the conventional wisdom was you don’t go to downtown Geneva, and the next thing I know, we’re right smack dab downtown. I think Annie’s business was instrumental in getting some people to rethink downtown.”

When Lynne passed away 10 years ago, Dave sold their large house and moved into an apartment in one of the buildings he owned. “I live downtown now, and I’m out and about in the evenings. It’s a really big thing to me to see the transformation.”

He is concerned, however, that the transformation is being hampered by the high taxes that make it difficult to attract younger people to affordable housing and, incentivize investment and businesses. Since I’ve lived in Geneva, the city’s poverty rate has more than doubled, currently standing somewhere between 25-30%. That’s at the same time we boast of being the home for great building stock and an even better location within the Finger Lakes region with three institutions of higher learning, a regional hospital, and a beautiful lakefront.”

“Property taxes in the City of Geneva are an enormous problem and, in my view, represent an existential threat to the City’s financial viability,” he continues. “I believe property taxes are the root of our problem, and I plan to use my remaining spare time and energy trying to positively impact it.”

Renovating the Plum Point Lodge

Spare time is not one of the things Dave has much of. One of his largest projects began when he purchased the former Rainbow Cove Resort in 2018. Owned by the same family for 60 years, the 50’s-style motel is located on what Dave considers “one of the best pieces of property on the entire lake.”

Dave mowing the grounds at the Plum Point Lodge

He has completely renovated the property on the western shore of Seneca Lake in Himrod that includes over 300 feet of lakefront. Recently re-named and re-opened, Plum Point Lodge offers lodge rooms, a farmhouse suite, glamping yurts, a pool, event spaces, a dock, and outdoor recreational areas. The lodge features a locally sourced, farm-to-table restaurant called Sapalta, which he considers one of the best restaurants on Seneca Lake, and hosts chef-winemaker dinners throughout the year.

Now Dave also has a family partner and successor. He convinced his son Jason to move from Texas to become the property’s vice president and chief operating officer. “I’m trying to back away from all the actual running around and management. I’m not nearly as young as I used to be.”

Always Learning and Staying Relevant

At 78, staying involved is important to him because as he explains, “How do you maintain any relevance in this world if you’re not involved in stuff?” Part of that involvement is derived from his ability and fearlessness to learn new things. “You just have to decide if you’re going to stick your neck out, and the rest will take care of itself if you pay attention. Frankly, I made a lot of mistakes, but you learn something every time.”

He has deliberately put himself out there for the betterment of the community with both his non-profit and business leadership. “My wife was social, but I was never really inclined to be. But I had a real interest in getting to know the people here who were getting things done. Frankly, I guess this was my way of remaining relevant in the community in which we had chosen to live. It gave an essentially non-social person a way to meet other involved community participants.”

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