The Mayor That Never Left
By Jade Williams and Julia Cobernus
Canalside Chronicles staff
Brockport, NY- If you lived in Brockport in the early 2000s, you may remember Jo Matela as the mayor of Brockport. Now locals know her as the owner of Red Bird Cafe and Gift Shop, a little store just a few strides past the bridge in town.
Matela was raised in the Southern Tier by a very political family who influenced her to want to make a difference in the lives around her. She was taught by her grandfather, who ran for office in Catsville, the only way to make a significant impact on a community was to run for office. Her drive to help those around her began here and flourished throughout her teenage years.
As a junior in high school, Matela spent three months as a foreign exchange student living in Columbia.
“I left Columbia with only a few items besides the clothes on my back. I gave all that I had to the sisters I lived with because they had almost nothing,” Matela said.
Matela came to Brockport in the pursuit of an education and studied communication and education at The College at Brockport. Years later, she went back to the college pursuing a degree in sociology.
After spending her college years in Brockport, Matela fell in love with the small town vibe the village offered which was similar to the town where she grew up.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Matela said.
One perk the Village of Brockport has provided Matela with is the scenery that she has always loved.
“It’s beautiful here. I love the resources and the natural entertainment the town provides,” Matela said.
In 2001, Matela made the life altering decision to run for the office of the Mayor of Brockport.
“One day I was riding my bike and I watched a family pick up their daughter from the college campus. I stopped and asked them what they thought of the student housing and they said it was the worst they had ever seen. I wanted to focus on students’ safety and their all-around happiness here at the college. I thought, if I’m going to make a difference I would need to run for mayor,” Matela said.
Matela was the underdog in the race running against the incumbent mayor. She said she worked as hard as she could and went to every single house in the Brockport Village to collect signatures on her petition. Once she completed that step, the real fight began as she said that politics are all about “personal destruction.” Other candidates try to bring down their competitors in order to win the race, which Matela said she thought was beneath her.
“I always believed that people who get positions in office should get them because of what they can do, not by destroying their opponents. I refused to take that route and instead built myself up,” Matela said.
She beat the former mayor by 35 votes, beginning her four-year journey as mayor.
Matela put in 40-60 hours per week during her four years in office and was responsible for projects including building the welcome center and helping to clean up the water that was contaminated by General Electric. She reveals that this was the most exciting and rewarding experience of her life and that the grueling work weeks were worth it to see the changes she was making to the community. Matela said she ran the town with three morals in mind: honesty, integrity and keeping your word.
“I didn’t always relate to people’s problems, but I would put myself in their shoes in order to help everyone as best as I could,” Matela said.
Matela later opened the Red Bird Cafe and Gift Shop in 2005 after her term as mayor ended. The cafe is home to many events ranging from her American Girl tea party to art exhibits for local artists.
“I’m so obsessed with the boutique side of the Red Bird Cafe and Gift Shop. The clothes are so unique and made with such high quality,” Kelly Kozminski said. Kozminski has lived in the village of Brockport for several years now and raved about Matelas shop for both the clothes and Matelas friendliness.
“I learn a lot when I’m working with her,” Olivia Shlansky said. Shlansky is a Brockport student who works for Matela. Shlansky said she picked the job because of how friendly and flexible Matela is.
Aside from her business, Matela is interested in a number of different hobbies including cooking, baking, gardening, antiquing and anything outdoors. This past year she built a cabin in the Adirondacks, where she plans on travelling often to with her family. Her family and loyal friends are her largest support system.i
“The happiest part of my life is my granddaughters. I have two sons as well. They all bring me so much joy,” Matela said. “They make me want to wake up each and every morning.”