October 18, 2021

Approved projects draw mixed reactions

Photo by Casey Austin/contributing photographer

Main Street in Cortland is seen from the roof of the Cortland Standard. File Photo.

Pete Hulsey drove into Cortland Thursday on Interstate 81. The architecture was stunning. So was the blight.

Hulsey was in town from Atlanta to buy a Porsche from a private owner, and was eating lunch Thursday outside of Hairy Tony’s on Main Street and looking for something Cortland doesn’t have — an upscale hotel. A parking garage would be nice too, he said, something that would allow visitors to spend several hours enjoying a meal and walking around.

Cortland won’t get either of those things — they never made it to the final list of projects that will be funded through the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, though they were envisioned in earlier plans for the state funding.

The final list was announced Thursday and Cortland officials hope the projects that made the cut will help attract people — perhaps like Hulsey — encourage them to stay downtown, spend money while here, and make them want to come back.

Residents and visitors shared mixed opinions Thursday afternoon about what made the cut.

The biggest ticket item — $5.1 million to convert Main Street to two-way traffic and replace water and sewer mains — saw both strong support and ardent opposition. Tony Caruso, owner of Hairy Tony’s, said he is happy that’s happening, while the owner of Pita Gourmet, Charbel Karam, said that money would be better spent addressing parking needs.

Karam said most of his customers are older people who need to park close to the restaurant. With so many restaurants in proximity to each other, parking space is limited.

A two-way Main Street will create a traffic nightmare when delivery trucks park outside, unless they have dedicated spots, which will reduce parking even more, he said.

Hulsey, who lives in Atlanta, said it’s the atmosphere downtown that attracts people.

Giving people ample time to park — maybe up to five hours — so they can enjoy a meal and walk around town to a local destination after, would make the experience welcoming, he said.

The blighted buildings he noticed might be addressed through another of the program’s initiatives: A $600,000 revolving loan fund would help property owners with building renovations downtown.

Connectivity shouldn’t be a problem either.

This was good news for Katrina Toolan, who was sitting outside the post office in search of a Wi-Fi signal on her phone. Her mother had specifically told her to try the post office, she said, because she couldn’t get a signal at Courthouse Park a block away.

“Walking through here you lose a lot of service,” said Toolan, who was pleased to hear that a backbone for high speed internet would be another component of the plan. That will cost $386,000.

Homer native Sara Watrous was sitting outside of Bru 64 with a friend and said while she is excited about some aspects of the plan, she is skeptical about many of them.

Devoting about $450,000 to create a downtown pocket park and to install artistic features throughout downtown are exciting to Watrous, but the $270,752 being spent to establish a gym and physical therapy center downtown is not.

“When I hear gym, I get confused about why that’s a top priority,” she said, adding there are already many gyms downtown. The YMCA, YWCA, Cortland Fitness Center and Seven Valleys CrossFit are all within blocks of each other.

“I don’t know that that’s going to bring more people downtown, but maybe it will,” she said.

Watrous said the $975,000 that will be put to renovating 28 Main St. into a bowling alley and multi-use entertainment venue with a rooftop park, is a risk that could pay off.

Cortland needs something that sets it apart from other communities, she said, and such a venue may be unique enough to succeed.

Cortland already has a lot of the aspects of a successful, vibrant place to live, Watrous said, with concerts in the summer, an emphasis on the arts, and people who are proud to live there. She wants to see the plans be welcoming to low-income families and all different types of people.

“It’s important to make sure that what we’re doing is really inclusive,” she said. “It’s exciting the city of Cortland has this opportunity and now it’s kind of a wait-and-see thing.”