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Cortland finds economic partner in NY Jets

The football field at SUNY Cortland is still drying from the previous day's rain when the New York Jets start practice. Hulking men in white jerseys line up to kick footballs and run routes as they prepare for yet another smash-mouth season in the NFL. For the fourth year, they've come to the sleepy upstate city to practice, while fans clamor for autographs and merchandise.

In Cortland, the Jets are a draw that brings millions of dollars into the economy, according to an impact study performed by the college last year. In 2012, more than 35,000 visitors, from 36 states and two Canadian provinces, visited training camp, spending $2.6 million during the Jets' three-week stay. When combined with the money spent by the city and the college to host the team, the total going into the local economy climbed close to $5.5 million. Bob Haight, executive director of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce, says the boost those dollars provide for the community can be seen everywhere.

"The restaurants and the hotels, they're the easy ones to spot," Haight said. "Most nights during training camp hotels are going to be full, weekends for sure. That's where it's going to spill over. If you want to come now on a weekend, you're going to be in Tompkins or Onondaga County in order to get a room."

Credit Gino Geruntino/WRVO
Autographs adorn the wall of Cortland's Doug's Fish Fry.

Haight says that equals about a 20 percent bump in sales each year the Jets come to town.

"What you see around town, practice generally goes from 10 a.m. until about noon or one o'clock, so folks after that are looking for a good spot for lunch," Haight said. "The downtown area is just packed with those people. Restaurants, gas stations, hotels, golf courses - all of those see a direct benefit."

In 2011, when an NFL lockout meant no training camp, sales fell to pre-2009 levels.

SUNY Cortland itself also benefits, setting records for the number of applicants to the college. The school's president, Erik Bitterbaum, says it's partly due to a trade agreement with the Jets, which displays the college's banners during home games and on their official website.

"This class we had I think it was 11,500-plus applications for about 1,200 openings," Bitterbaum said. "And they're across all our majors, from art to zoology. It's not just in specific [majors], but because of the Jets, our sports management major has really blossomed. It's one of the best in the country now."

At first, some in the city were concerned that the team's presence would bring heavy traffic, crowded restaurants and cramped sidewalks. But that didn't happen and the city began welcoming the thousands of daily visitors with open arms.

But it's not just the influx of cash that Cortland's citizens enjoy, it's being in the presence of players and management figures who seem larger than life.

Mark Braun, owner of Cortland's Doug's Fish Fry, stands in front of one of his autographed helmet stickers.
Credit Gino Geruntino/WRVO
Mark Braun, owner of Cortland's Doug's Fish Fry, stands in front of one of his autographed helmet stickers.

Mark Braun stands in front of a giant Jets helmet sticker covered with autographs from the 2012 Jets team. The helmet is only one of several that adorn the walls of Cortland's Doug's Fish Fry, along with hundreds of framed photos, multiple jerseys and a giant cardboard cutout of quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Braun's been a fan for more than 30 years. He says he was shocked when the Jets picked Cortland as their training facility. Since 2009, Doug's has become a post-practice hangout for fans, media personalities and players.

"I've had season tickets for about 20 years to the Jets," Braun said. "It's just kind of neat, the best of both worlds, you know, benefit from the business side of things and then as a fan, too."

Braun says the business Doug's Fish Fry gets on Saturdays during Jets training camp are some of the most profitable days all year, only rivaled by Fridays during Lent.

While the Jets relationship with Cortland has given its retailers, hotels and college more tourism and marketing potential, the chamber of commerce's Bob Haight knows that there is always the possibility of this lucrative relationship coming to an end.

"None of these businesses popped up because of the Jets," Haight said. "What it's done is it's just assisted and given a little boom while the Jets are here. But, we don't expect this to last forever. Someday there may be someone else at the helm who will decide he wants to go somewhere else. When that happens, we'll go back to being the lovely Cortland that we've always been."

Until that day comes, Cortland will continue to enjoy hosting the team and reap the rewards of its partnership. This year's training camp runs through August 15.