October 23, 2021

Thoma retires after recreating city

Niche developed

Photo provided by Thoma Development

Thoma Development founder Bernard Thoma, right, is shown with Richard Cunningham, a company employee who is buying the businesses in this undated photo.

Bernard Thoma has had a hand in many developments in Cortland over the past four decades.

His firm, Thoma Development Consultants, helped the city administer the single-family home rehab program, economic development programs, the tree planting program, the city’s comprehensive plan and in writing the application that won the city $10 million in the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

Thoma plans to retire at the end of the year, leaving Thoma Development in the hands of Rich Cunningham, soon to be the sole owner and senior consultant.

One of Thoma’s proudest achievements was working with the city to finance the $3.7 million reconstruction of the clock tower building at Main and Tompkins streets, which was completed in 2009. It is the only time he can think of that a building in downtown Cortland has burned down and then been rebuilt.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Bernard Thoma, founder of Cortland-based Thoma Development, cited the reconstructed clock tower building, shown Friday afternoon, as one of his most significant achievements during 37 years in business. Thoma is retiring after selling his firm to a long-time company employee.

“Plenty of buildings have burned down, but most of the sites are parking lots now,” Thoma said.

He also helped create a microenterprise program that allows businesses with five or fewer employees to receive grants from the city for equipment, training and working capital, and the program that helps low-income people buy their first houses.

Mayor Brian Tobin called Thoma one of the unsung heroes of Cortland, having secured millions in grants for city programs.

“When I was first on the council, we were given a proposal to renew the city’s contract with Thoma Development,” Tobin said. “I asked, ‘What does Thoma do with the city?’ The size of the packet (of projects) I got back was staggering.”

Thoma first came to Cortland in 1974, enrolling in SUNY Cortland after a stint in the Army. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at SUNY Cortland and got a job working in the city community development office.

In 1980, Thoma and another employee left their city jobs and started Thoma Development Consultants. The city became Thoma’s first client.

Thoma Development initially started in grant writing before expanding to work on comprehensive plans, feasibility studies and economic impact analyses. The bulk of the firm’s work remains in grant writing.

Thoma Development has done work for municipalities in the Mohawk Valley, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Central New York.

Cunningham said the transition of titles and ownership began in 2010. He will be the sole owner on Jan. 1.

Cunningham has been a Thoma employee for the past 22 years. The two have worked as a team on many projects, including rebuilding the clock tower and helping create a waterfront facility in the village of Waterloo. To him, Thoma has always been a great boss, a mentor and a calm voice of reason.

“The average tenure for an employee here is 20 years, which speaks to the quality of the work environment he created,” Cunningham said.

“Rich has been an important part of Thoma,” Thoma said. “I’m sure he’ll make improvements on what I have accomplished.”

Thoma plans to spend time in Florida, where he has wintered for five years. He also plans to travel.

“It’s easy to do without a business,” Thoma said.