February 20, 2008


Small downtowns face challenges

Businesses are sometimes short-lived, shoppers hard to attract


Bob Ellis/staff photographer    
Some of the area’s downtowns, such as McGraw’s which is shown Monday, are contending with the difficulties of remaining economically vibrant.

Staff Reporter

In 1990, developer Mark Henline came to McGraw, a quiet village where he could develop properties at his own pace.
He has succeeded in remodeling the interiors of 30, 34 and 36 Main St., but he hasn’t been so successful at getting business tenants to last long in his buildings, despite low rents.
“It’s a constant battle,” Henline said, noting the latest example is Forever and Always Chocolate, which folded after just a few months at 36 Main St.
While the city of Cortland often gets attention for its downtown challenges and efforts, small towns and villages such as McGraw have to work just as hard, if not harder, to retain and attract downtown businesses and shoppers.
Henline sees the problem as twofold: many businesses that come in have low cash flow or unpolished business plans, while the more savvy businesses and investors aren’t convinced the investment is worthwhile.
“People have never taken the area seriously because Cortland is right there,” Henline said.
He said he hopes his latest tenant, China Wok at 30 Main St., will buck the recent trend.
In Dryden, a fair number of businesses have moved from downtown to other locations in the village where they could build or rent new buildings in such areas as along Route 13.
It’s good those businesses are still around, but too bad downtown is suffering in the meantime, according to Mayor Reba Taylor.
“I think a thriving downtown is always a good thing,” Taylor said, noting it provides a more personal shopping experience.
Recreating a busy downtown climate might be a lost cause, Taylor said, with the current driving culture.
But things could change somewhat if downtown Dryden had better parking, or at least signs to show people where public lots are located, Taylor said. A Chamber of Commerce or business association could be talking about that and related issues, she said, but interest doesn’t seem to be there.
“I have tried on numerous occasions to get some sort of business association together,” Taylor said. “I have never had any luck. ...We’ve brought people together a few times when collecting money for Christmas (for holiday decorations) in December, but nothing seems to last more than a year or two.”
Certain business associations in small towns, including the Homer Business Association, Cincinnatus Business Association and Marathon Area Progress Association, have contributed to their respective downtowns.
The Marathon Area Progress Association, whose main goal is to provide networking opportunities, information and support to its members, has helped keep downtown Marathon businesses around town.
Businesses include a drug store, a diner, a pizza shop, a Chinese eatery, a grocery store, a convenience mart, hair places, a spa and a bank.
“We don’t have too many empty storefronts, and if they’re empty it’s by the owner’s choice,” said association President Rosemarie Fralick. “If anything we have a shortage of space.”
The challenge, in Fralick’s eyes, is bringing more shoppers downtown. Often Marathon residents shop in Binghamton and Cortland, on their way home from work or another engagement, or during a special trip.
One solution could be working with the village to get on-street parking spaces marked following the state’s upcoming reconstruction of Route 222, Fralick said.
Another answer could be advertising downtown’s benefits, said Fralick, who owns Advanced Awards at 25 Cortland St.
She said the Marathon Area Progress Association, at its March meeting, hopes to plan an upcoming print advertising campaign to highlight downtown Marathon’s offerings.
“We want to tell people this is what you can get in Marathon, especially with gasoline at $3 a gallon,” Fralick said. “You don’t have to get something in Cortland; you can save time and money by shopping in Marathon.”
The village of Homer has been able to boost its foot traffic downtown through various downtown events, including its annual WinterFest, where businesses stay open until 8 p.m. Friday, and until 5 p.m. Saturday, and special tourism initiatives.
“You’ve got the theater out in Little York that draws people,” said Rob Garrison, manager at Homer Men and Boys’ Store. “They bring tours through and funnel folks downtown to Homer.”
Ads in various Cortland County brochures and people spreading the word about downtown Homer’s unique shops, including Bev & Co. and Main Street Antiques, have also helped, Garrison said.
He said significant foot traffic has contributed to downtowns stability, with longtime businesses continuing to thrive and filled storefronts.
“Since I’ve been here, for the last 15 downtown years, downtown has been pretty stable,” Garrison said. “Most of the businesses have been in business quite a few years and have loyalty.”
Cincinnatus Supervisor Dale Betts said he wished Cincinnatus had a Homer Men and Boys’-type store, a pharmacy or some other addition to its downtown. While the businesses there, including True Value, Cincinnatus Market Place and Magros Italian Pizza, are thriving, choices are definitely lacking.
“We would love to have more business in town, but the town budget and trying to keep taxes as reasonable as possible doesn’t permit us to be out there doing a major campaign and bringing businesses in,” he said.
Bates said he hopes the Cincinnatus Business Association can succeed in its goal of trying to improve the areas quality of life, which could in turn improve the business climate. Also, high gas prices could improve the market for new businesses, he said.
“That may bring a revitalization to commercial marketing in small communities,” Betts said. “We’ve heard that there’s some stores, like the family dollars stores, are interested in moving into small communities. That may happen.”




Council rejects loan for housing project

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — The question was raised numerous times by residents and city _Common Council members: Is this right for Cortland?
But after nearly three hours of questions, discussion and comments from local landlords and residents, the council determined Tuesday the answer is no, a low-to-moderate income housing complex on Pendleton Street would not be a good fit for the community.
With a vote of 6-2, the Common Council turned down a $150,000 low-interest loan for the development.
“My final vote was no from the get-go but I wanted to hear what everyone had to say,” said Alderman Tom Michales (R-8th Ward), who represents those residents in the area of the proposed project. “I don’t think it’s what the community wants right now.”
Michales added that when the Syracuse-based Housing Visions Inc. came before the Common Council to rehabilitate 30 low-income apartment units on and around south Main Street using federal tax credits, three people sat in the audience. With the Conifer project, the room was full.
“It’s evident that people want to see restoration rather than something new,” he said.
Bernie Thoma, president of Thoma Development, said Housing Visions received a $100,000 loan at zero percent interest from the city. The Conifer loan would have had a 30-year term at a 2 percent interest rate.
“I thought the council missed a great opportunity to have quality housing in this community, and in fact voted to continue to have substandard housing in the community,” said Mayor Tom Gallagher. “I just hope this doesn’t send out the message that its hard to get anything done in the Cortland Community. … The voice of the minority spoke out and that’s what the council used as a means of making their decision.”
Timothy Fournier, president and CEO of Conifer, was also disappointed with the outcome of the vote and said he was going to consider whether to continue pushing the proposal for a 56-unit low-to-moderate housing complex that would sit on the vacant lot at 111-115 Pendleton St.
“We are going to go back and regroup and give it some serious consideration,” Fournier, said about their proposal. “There are too many other communities in upstate New York that want affordable housing and care about affordable housing in their communities and that wasn’t demonstrated here tonight.”



Study to look at creation of law department

Local attorney will examine ways to improve, restructure county attorney office

Staff Reporter

In an attempt to remove some of the politics from the appointment of the county attorney position, the Cortland County Legislature’s Budget and Finance Committee approved a proposal Tuesday morning that would hire a local attorney to investigate possibilities for a more formal law department.
The committee decided unanimously to retain Fran Casullo to conduct a study of the current county attorney system and possible ways to improve it. The full Legislature will vote on the proposal Feb. 28.
Casullo would be paid $90 an hour at a cost not to exceed $5,000 under the proposal.
Budget and Finance Committee Chairman John Troy (D-1st Ward) said that the idea for a professional, non-politicized law department had originated in a Cortland Standard editorial last year, and he had endorsed the possibility at the end of the year.
“That’s a position where politics shouldn’t be involved,” Troy said Tuesday afternoon. “If we can save the taxpayers money along the way and get more efficiency, those are definitely pluses.”
Budget and Finance member Tom Williams (R-Homer) said he did some research and approached Casullo about the idea, and the latter was enthusiastic.
Casullo is a member of the law firm Pomeroy, Armstrong & Casullo and the town justice for Cortlandville, where Williams is employed as code enforcement officer. Williams said Casullo also served as the assistant county attorney in the past and is acquainted with the office’s structure and duties.
The goal was to find someone outside of county government, and Williams said he doesn’t “see him (Casullo) as being possibly interested in the job, if it was created.”
The county attorney is appointed by each incoming Legislature at the start of its two-year term, usually at the organizational meeting at the beginning of January. The appointment has become a political football, some legislators say. Current County Attorney Mark Suben said that an investigation into a possible restructuring of the department is warranted.
“Given what I know about how this position has been filled and how the assistant positions have been filled — an unbelievably political process — I think it would be very prudent for the Legislature to look into this to have some continuity,” Suben said Tuesday morning.



County to settle with William St. homeowners

Staff Reporter

The county will settle with the owners of a home that had been included in the failed south Main Street public health building property purchase if the Cortland County Legislature agrees with a Budget and Finance Committee’s recommendation.
The committee approved a $12,475 settlement for James and Yvonne Cole of 11 William St., based upon negotiations originally conducted by former County Attorney Ric Van Donsel and recommended at a Nov. 29 meeting of the committee.
County Administrator Scott Schrader took issue with another settlement whose approval Van Donsel had recommended, and the Cole property was caught up in the controversy.
Budget and Finance Committee chair John Troy (D-1st Ward) said he didn’t see any hurdles for the settlement when it is brought to the full Legislature for a vote on Feb. 28.
“The Cole property kind of got swept under the table, but the county attorney and Scott Schrader both recommended the settlement on the property,” Troy said Tuesday afternoon.
Schrader was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
“Under the circumstances, it appears to me to be fair and reasonable,” current County Attorney Mark Suben said Tuesday morning.
The Coles had originally requested $20,000 after the county backed out of purchasing their home for $90,000. The Legislature had decided to purchase a total of nine properties on and near south Main Street in December 2006 with the intent to construct a public health facility to house the Health and Mental Health departments.
It then backed out of those agreements in January, prompting a lawsuit in which a judge ruled the county had violated a valid contract to purchase the properties.
While the county has agreed to purchase the two commercial properties involved in the deal, three of the residential property owners sought settlements from the county for damages incurred after the original purchase fell through.