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Work begins in long-vacant Cortland building

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Plywood sheathing is delivered to the upper floors of 51-55 Main St. in Cortland on Tuesday as work begins to restore a building damaged a dozen years ago by arson.

Renovations started this week on a Main Street, Cortland, building wrecked by a fire more than a decade ago.

Construction workers started rehabilitation work on the inside of 51-55 Main St. City Director of Code Enforcement William Knickerbocker said the upper two floors will be rehabilitated into eight apartments, four on each floor. What would go in first floor is undetermined at this time, though Knickerbocker said a restaurant is likely.

The work is being carried out by 55 Main St. Holdings LLC., managed by real estate agent Emmanuel Pothos, who could not be reached for comment.

The city of Cortland issued the building permits for the establishment on June 27, with Knickerbocker saying fire protection would be added to the site.

“It’s a matter of time to make the building safe,” Knickerbocker said. “It’s something definitely well overdue.”

The building was the site of an arson in 2005 that destroyed the apartments there, an art gallery and two retail businesses, Smooch’s, a beauty and gift store, and Shangri-La, an antiques store. Evidence of an accelerant, perhaps kerosene or lighter fluid, was found.

Since the arson, the site has received several hundred thousand dollars in grants from the state in 2009, 2012 and 2014. The most recent grant received was $200,000 from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council in December 2016.

The Cortland Downtown Partnership worked with 55 Main St. Holdings to secure those grants. Downtown Partnership Executive Director Adam Megivern said they are finally seeing their efforts come to fruition.

“Anytime we’re able to bring a historic building back online, it’s great,” Megivern said.

The arson investigation took three years to complete. Prosecution and appeals took another two years. In all that time, the building had to remain untouched.

Smooch’s owner, Andrea Stevens, was convicted of third-degree arson, a felony, in January 2010, though she maintained her innocence. Two appeals were denied as prosecutor Rita Basile said Stevens was the only person involved with a motive, as she was deep in debt and wanted $100,000 in insurance.

Stevens served one year in state prison and was ordered to pay $130,997.57 to Sheldon Gosline, the owner of Shangri-La, and $2,000 to Jared Troutman, one of the gallery owners, in restitution.