Exceptionalism Abounds; The Downtown Ithaca Conference Center

Bob’s former Home Page Essay; Feb. 6 – 15, 2020

To our readers:

With the campaign over, I’ll showcase on this Home Page, from time to time, issues and controversies of local import that reach beyond Enfield’s borders, yet still impact each of us as Enfield citizens and taxpayers.

This is one such issue:  A proposal advanced and promoted by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, and embraced by prominent Ithaca City and Tompkins County lawmakers, to construct—with County governmental guarantees—a 49,000 square foot, $31.5 Million Downtown Ithaca Conference Center.  It would occupy the ground floors of a 12-story high-rise housing project on the site of Ithaca’s Green Street parking garage.

You, like me, may view this project as the product of “Ithaca Exceptionalism;” a fervent belief among many (generally those not in Enfield) that our County Seat’s uniqueness will draw professional conferences like a magnet; that we can succeed whereas other similarly-sized cities might fail. And as a result, “Ithaca Exceptionalism” spawns that heartfelt, curiously-bolstered conviction that Ithaca’s exceptional attributes can counterbalance our central city’s most glaring obstacles, drawbacks of which Downtown’s cheerleaders dare not speak; impediments like our central isolation, overpriced hotels, unpredictable weather, and of course, Ithaca’s notorious lack of Downtown parking.

During three meetings, each on three consecutive days, February 4th through the 6th, the Tompkins County Legislature, Ithaca’s Common Council, and finally, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, green-lighted the venture with initial Resolutions of Commitment likely to obligate government to cover expected operating losses once the Conference Center is up and running, probably beginning in 2023. Downtown development interests, and most vocally, the Ithaca hotel and hospitality industries, support the venture. But do you? And perhaps more importantly, should Enfield?

Here’s what’s happened most recently. You decide.

City, Agency Green-Light $31.5 Million Ithaca Conference Center

Closed meeting to commence talks on County risk-sharing

Foreground: Ithaca’s Green Street Parking Ramp, to be razed to accommodate housing and a Downtown Conference Center. In the Background: The new Harold’s Square apartments, under construction.

by Robert Lynch, February 6, 2020

With one deadline met, another one now looms, and just weeks away, as Tompkins County and Ithaca City leaders seek to cobble together a financial plan to share the risk for a new $31.5 Million Downtown Ithaca Conference Center, a project endorsed by County lawmakers Tuesday night.

By a 4-0 vote, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) Thursday (Feb. 6th) affirmed the Conference Center’s viability and set a March 4th deadline for both the City and County to reach a memorandum of agreement “to define the roles and responsibilities for the shared financial guarantee.”  Both parties would then need to “fully execute”— presumably vote—on those agreements by March 16th.

The IURA’s action came only hours after a near-Midnight vote, also unanimous, by Ithaca’s Common Council, to “express its commitment to provide a financial guarantee for the project financing to be shared with Tompkins County throughout the life of the (30 year) lease,”

Estimates suggest that the Conference Center could require as much as $1.9 Million annually in public funds to offset its projected losses.

Wednesday’s City resolution paralleled—but was not identical to—the Tompkins County measure, submitted by Ithaca Democrat Anna Kelles, whereby the County Legislature voted “to support a portion of the City’s financial guarantee for the annual project lease payments.”

The linguistic differences must yet be resolved, including the County Resolution’s presumed more tentative, secondary role for its taxpayers’ exposure.  Yet it appears those first steps will take place behind closed doors.

IURA Director Nels Bohn confirmed Thursday that staffs from both the City and County have scheduled to meet early Monday evening, February 10th, at an unstated location.  Bohn described the session as an initial staff discussion, not open to the press or public.  But he could not be sure whether any legislators would attend.

Bohn stressed that the meeting need not be public unless a quorum—that is, a majority of either the Legislature or Common Council—was present.  County Administrator Jason Molino is expected to attend.

Wednesday’s approved City resolution committed Common Council to seek State permission to levy its first-ever City hotel room occupancy tax, tacked on to a similar tax the County already imposes.  Should the State reject the city tax, Council would, alternatively, establish through local law a tourism improvement district, its assessments likewise burdening hotel occupants.

County lawmakers, while requiring through their resolution the City’s chosen funding initiatives, also suggested the County raise its own occupancy tax an additional one per cent to help fill the gap.

Likely in an attempt to secure her measure’s passage, Kelles in her County resolution jettisoned earlier suggestions advanced by Conference Center promoters that the City and County split risks 50/50.  Revised language presumes the City would shoulder the greater burden.

But the departure from 50/50 startled some Common Council members Wednesday.

“We don’t really have an agreement with the County as to who will go first, who will go second; but there will be sharing,” responded Thomas Knipe, Ithaca’s Director for Economic Development.

Knipe cautioned that while only four of the 13 attending County legislators had voted against the Kelles resolution, at least three others voted “yes” only with reservations.

“This has to be a collaborative effort,” observed Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the non-profit group that would likely oversee the Center. Speaking of the mutual risk exposure, Ferguson said, “I think this will be a split.”

Those two March deadlines would press County lawmakers to reach agreements fast; within the “six-week” timetable that skeptical legislator Mike Lane had predicted on Tuesday.

Lane had counseled his colleagues to “slow down a little bit.” Yet he’d expected members would again be “under the gun,” sooner that they’d thought.  Many legislators had complained they’d felt rushed at meeting their initial deadline, one imposed by City officials and project developers. 

That developer, the Vecino Group, seeks to build a 12-story Green Street apartment high rise, of which the Conference Center would occupy the bottom two floors.  Vecino’s proceeding with its housing hinged upon Thursday’s commitment.

Had the City and County failed to endorse the Conference Center, the IURA would have scrubbed the Center from Vecino’s plans, concluding that it “contains too many unresolved issues and lacks sufficient commitments to confidently secure project financing.”

As occurred the previous night with County lawmakers, supporters of the Ithaca hotel and retail communities trooped before Common Council Wednesday to voice their support.  Hotel managers said the Conference Center’s patrons would help cure their troubling slump in mid-week occupancies.

But Alderperson Donna Fleming lamented the hotels can’t get their messages straight, and she was “not persuaded” by their pleas of hardship. 

When they seek our approvals, Fleming recalled, these new hotels have assured Council that their “financials” are strong.  “But now,” she added, “they say business is slow.”

Nonetheless, Fleming, and each of her nine Common Council colleagues, voted to invite the Conference Center to join the downtown mix.


And now that you’ve learned the latest, here’s what this writer, your Councilperson, presented before Ithaca Common Council, Wednesday, February 5th, prior to its endorsement of the Conference Center:

Good Evening.

I’m Robert Lynch, 175 Gray Road, Councilperson, Town of Enfield.

I’m appearing here on behalf of myself, alone, and not on behalf of my Town. But I think I can offer, here a rural perspective that reflects the opinions of many of my constituents, taxpayers who will in the words of   our former County Legislature Chair, Mike Lane, be burdened with the “ultimate financial guarantee”  for this project.  Because, at bottom, if nobody else pays, the taxpayer must.

But let me start tonight with the words of one of your own, Alderperson George McGonigal, who addressed our County Legislature last night with these words:

“We’re putting our faith in a study, one that may very well be good.  But it’s just one study.”

And referring to that Five Million Dollar state grant that would jump-start this project, McGonigal said:

 “It’s enough to get us on the table.  It may also be enough to get us in serious trouble, because it’s only 20 per cent of the cost.”

Yes, serious trouble… for your City, and for our County.

I’ve lived in Tompkins County for 51 years.  I reported lots of news here.  I remember the Hotel Block hole that remained a hole for years and years, before Rothschild’s and Center Ithaca finally, finally filled it.

Times now may be different.  But still:

Last night’s comments before the County Legislature suggested potential Conference Center annual shortfalls as high as $1.9 million dollars.  Maybe that’s a bit overblown.

But Gary Ferguson of the Downtown Ithaca alliance told me last month, perhaps combined government subsidies of up to $800,000 annually were a possibility.

What if the conferences don’t come?  What if the studies are wrong?  What if people simply don’t want to come here?   To pay our inflated room rates, soon with those add-on new room taxes?   To drive far from the beaten path, drive for scores of miles from the nearest expressway, in all sorts of weather, and then… try to find a place in Downtown Ithaca to park. [And upon hearing those words, Council members laughed.]

I’m not saying don’t do the conference center.  I’m just suggesting, why not do it right?

Are there any creative ways you haven’t explored to close the financial gap?

Have you ever considered selling commercial naming rights for the Conference Center… with the revenues going not to the developers… but to us?

What about doing what Gary Ferguson says most others do, but we don’t.  What about financing through municipal bonds, and getting the “amazingly conservative” commercial lenders off our backs?

What’s the rush?  Why not put off tomorrow’s deadline.  Why not take a deep breath, and truly, truly, think this one through.

Listen to George.  He’s cautious.  He’s skeptical.  So am I

Thank you.

Now, Enfield, what do you think?