Three meetings, three approvals for the conference center project slated to be included with the Green Street Garage redevelopment. And now once again, we wait.
In a vote on Tuesday, the Tompkins County Legislature agreed to enter negotiations with the City of Ithaca on a financial agreement for the conference center (though there was more than a little hesitation from the county about how those negotiations will turn out). Then on Wednesday, the city's Common Council approved a financial plan that laid out the groundwork for a Tourism Improvement District in Ithaca, which would add a tax to hotel room rentals to help offset the conference center's costs. On Thursday morning, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency approved the financial feasibility of that plan, clearing the way for the city and county to start negotiating.
The tax would likely be around 4.65 percent, and would require state legislation to make it possible. Hotels have largely been very supportive of the project, showing up at the public meetings this week to voice their thoughts. The city's projections, according to a memo from the city's Deputy Director of Economic Development, Tom Knipe, show that the tax would provide $1.9 million in additional revenue yearly.
The next deadline to keep an eye on is March 4, when the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County will look to have fully negotiated a financial agreement regarding the operation of the center. By March 16, it should be abundantly clear whether or not there will be a conference center, and exactly what the financial structure will look like behind it.
The plan, as it is progressing now, would be for 218 affordable housing units surrounding a 49,000 sq. ft. conference center, along with 353 parking spaces. If a conference center component is eventually rejected, the project would revert to 273 affordable housing units.
Vecino President Rick Manzardo, who has been leading the charge on the project for the development firm, said they would be interested in participating in a conference center project in the City of Ithaca even if the current Green Street Garage plans eventually fall through.
The drawings are still in the conceptual stage, Manzardo said, and once a definitive path is chosen he said Vecino would start with a schematic plan. The current timetable would likely see construction start in early 2021, with demolition of the garage taking place at that time. If all goes according to plan, the project would be finished by the summer of 2023.
The resolutions passed by the City of Ithaca also call for the establishment of several reserve funds that would serve to mitigate any risk taken on by the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County or the Downtown Ithaca Alliance in the event the conference center fails.
The facility would operate at a loss of around $200,000 per year, as has been projected by the previous feasibility studies.
"The conference center is not going to generate a profit itself, it's not going to break even as modeled," IURA Executive Director Nels Bohn said. "It very well could break even, but that's not what the model is projecting. The reason for that is is the benefits of the project aren't captured within the conference center budget itself. The conference center is only a space, the real benefit to the community is spread around to the hotels and the restaurants and the other businesses in the area. It's an investment in the community."
Mayor Svante Myrick acknowledged, and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino verified, that county officials at the legislature level are more tentative than the city has been about the conference center. Specifically, they mentioned that the respective resolutions approving financial negotiations passed unanimously before the city's Common Council, but only 9-4 at the County Legislature.
"There's definitely concern on legislators' part about the risk," Molino said. "Our perspective going into this is the risk is on everyone's part, so how do we own that collectively and share that responsibility to try to achieve the same outcome."