Cortland Business District Shifts from Downtown

CORTLAND, Ohio — Some 40-odd years ago, Cortland was a village. The population was around 2,500 tucked on the edge of farmland and the Youngstown-Warren suburbs. Back then, business was local and centered in and around downtown.

But in the 1970s, Cortland began to grow and things changed.

“The growth of this city is responsible for a lot of these businesses. When you go from 2,500 to 5,000 in about 10 years, and then again up to over 7,000 [where we are now],” Mayor Curt Moll says, “that number of customers pulls in businesses.”

Before the growth, many businesses in the city – its designation changed from village in 1980 to reflect the population surpassing 5,000 – were shops that catered to the small-town lifestyle or specialty shops that peddled furniture, antiques or other pieces of Americana.

“It has to do with our rural heritage. We’re eight miles from Warren, so it’s not terribly rural, but it was still a small-town farming community. I think there’s a lot of interest in that kind of shopping,” Moll says. “It became a destination.”

And there were, of course, the local grocery stores and banks that many residents still remember.

“There are people who have lived here longer than me that will always tell me about what downtown used to be. They’ll point out places like Isaly’s, which went down the tubes a long time ago. It was a great meeting place I’m told,” says Ken Zimmerman, president of the Cortland Lions Club. “If you talk to people, lots of them can tell you ‘Yeah, it was this, this and this,’ and go back to what it was with every business.”

In the late 1970s, by former mayor and city councilman Dennis Linville’s estimation, chain stores began moving to town. But, he adds, the growth hasn’t always been lightning-quick.

“It’s been steady progress. There were a couple of times when things did slow down, 2007 and 2008 for example, but it’s always started back up again,” he says.

What set the foundation for the continuous growth is the groundwork when businesses first started coming to town, says Linville, also a senior vice president of Middlefield Banking Co. Roads, water lines, sewage systems were put in as part of a “quality expansion” that set Cortland up.

Most of the economic growth came at the intersection of state routes 5 and 46 on the southern border of the city limits. There, gas stations, drug stores, fast-food chains, bank offices, doctors’ offices, car dealerships and stores took root, establishing a new economic district to serve the city.

“Cortland has got about everything you’d ever need. There are a number of organizations, banks, restaurants and the like. But it’s still small. You can walk to almost everything you’d want to do,” Zimmerman says. “There are so many things that are available and close. When you look at big cities and what’s available, everything’s close. Cortland is just like that, only it’s small.”

But the economic growth at the intersection of 5 and 46 has come at a cost to downtown Cortland. On West Main Street, which stretches from Route 5 to the shore of Mosquito Lake, several of the town’s old buildings remain in use while others sit empty. The businesses that called them home either moved toward the intersection or closed their doors.

“There are still a lot of small businesses, but not as many as we used to have. I think it’s money and mass production,” says Patti Keller, owner of Furniture Decor & More. “Little stores can’t compete with the chains and I think that, along with the Internet, is what makes that loss. People have lost some interest [in small businesses].”

One of the oldest shops, Country in the City, closed at the end of January.

“Small shops make Cortland unique,” Keller says. “If you go further south, I don’t think you see that as much. People come here for that kind of thing.”

Christina Benton, owner of Just Pizzelles in downtown Cortland, says her business relies mostly on shipping her products rather than customers coming in to buy her pastries. The growth on Route 5 is pushing toward downtown, she says, which could help small businesses on Main Street.

“It’s been coming down 46 and 5 from the [Eastwood] mall area. It seems to be slowly working this way [toward downtown] and it would be nice to draw from that,” she says.

On the other end of downtown, The Men’s Shop has seen steady business over the past few years by catering mostly to groups of motorcycle enthusiasts who get patches on their riding jackets, owner Nick Rosile says, as well as those who come for alterations on their professional attire. Cortland has always been a good place for startups, the tailor says, but sustaining success isn’t easy.

“It’s always been that way. Anybody who wants to open up a little place to sell whatever they can, as long as it’s doable. It has to sustain itself, of course,” he says. “It’s tough some days. But I’ve got good days and bad days, just like anybody.”

What could help the city, Benton says, is local businesses banding together and offering deals as a group.

“There are wineries and other things that can work together and make some unique packages [for tourists]. That’d be a neat thing to do. They need to work together and get things going,” she explains. “If we do that, it could be huge for Cortland.”

As for more growth, Linville says he see expansion continuing south of the city, specifically at the intersection of state routes 305 and 46.

“It’s a place just waiting to happen. One gentleman owns three corners and another owns the last one. They’re both aggressively looking for businesses to go in there,” he says. “Once you get one in there, more will come. It’s an active intersection for Cortland.”

As for what type of businesses would fill those lots, Benton, Moll and Zimmerman agree that the city needs more entertainment. The mayor points out that some restaurants have started up in the city over the last few years, including a Mexican restaurant near downtown and sports bar chain Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, is bringing some night life.

Zimmerman says the town is missing just one thing.

“What we need is more businesses to come in and fill up these buildings and get a few more things for people to do. We need entertainment businesses of some kind,” he says. “There’s at least one of everything that anyone could ever want. Except for maybe a movie theater.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.