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Internet’s impact on downtown gauged

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

In an effort to help bolster business in downtown Cortland, with the corner of Main and Court streets shown above, the Cortland Downtown Partnership has created the Cortland Business Incubator to help entrepreneurs. Adam Megivern, executive director of the organization, also said the Downtown Partnership’s gift certificate program, which includes more than 30 businesses and generates $10,000 in revenue on average, has encouraged residents to shop downtown.

The internet is accused of destroying a lot of things: Civility. The music and cable news industries. Meaningful face-to-face interactions with family and friends.

As communities across Upstate New York struggle to fill their Main Street storefronts, some feel the internet is about to claim its next victim: retail businesses.

The city might not be able to go back in time, but some city officials say drawing customers from outside the community can make up for the vacant storefronts.

Garry VanGorder, Cortland County Business Development Corp. executive director, said Thursday his agency is all too familiar with the shift. He remembered Montgomery Wards occupying the site of the Marketplace Mall decades ago.

“(Back then) there was no such thing as a shopping mall and there was nothing in South Cortland,” he said. “That’s where you went. Those days are gone. Bricks-and-mortar retailers are really kind of a dying thing nationwide.” VanGorder said.

Most recently, the Growth Spurt consignment maternity and children’s supply store that opened at Main Street last year closed this spring. Now the store is online. Before that, Bangles, Bags and Bling closed after10 years of business there. Other retail businesses like Empire 41 and Sarvay Shoe Co. closed before that.

The Cortland Downtown Partnership has created the Cortland Business Incubator specifically to help entrepreneurs succeed.

Adam Megivern, the organization’s executive director, said Thursday while the internet and big-box chain stores tend to draw customers away from small businesses, there are ways to support the remaining retail stores while finding people to fill vacancies.

Whether someone is looking to buy floor space or a website, sustaining a business comes down to one thing: customers, he said.

Megivern said the Downtown Partnership’s gift certificates program, which includes over 40 businesses and generates an average of $10,000 each year, has encouraged residents to shop downtown more often.

Long-term growth will require drawing in outside dollars by promoting downtown as a destination and entertainment district through efforts like the Ski Cortland marketing campaign, now prepping for its second ski season.

“With Walmart coming in and the internet, that has changed the dynamics of the market,” Megivern said. “A big key to this is becoming a destination. Capturing those dollars is critical to the success of our community.”

VanGorder said having more people living and working downtown is also important, which is why he thinks initiatives like the $7.2 million McNeil and Co. downtown campus project and the $15 million renovation of the Crescent Corset building into commercial space and apartments, are critical.

“I think the things we’re trying to do to stimulate living downtown is the most important thing we can do,” VanGorder said. “People who live downtown want to take advantage of services downtown.”

He added that this downtown living can potentially fuel small retail businesses.

Residents still have much to be proud of, though, Megivern said.

Night life is vibrant and having a grocery store like the Local Food Market downtown is the envy of cities like Syracuse, he said. Plus, sales tax revenue has increased over the last year and a half.

And the Downtown Partnership plans to unveil new partners in the Ski Cortland campaign in upcoming weeks.
Megivern said it is important residents support their local businesses by taking a trip downtown. In addition to some vacant storefronts, he expects residents will see Downtown Cortland’s resilience and potential, qualities needed to adapt and compete in a rapidly-evolving marketplace.

“We’ll hear there’s six vacancies, there’s 12 vacancies,” he said. “(But) there’s 250 businesses downtown — not just retail, but everyone down here. It’s driving our economy. We just need to figure out how we get it to that next level.”