The indelible changes to Ithaca’s downtown landscape are coming quickly and steadily, noted by construction fences, hard-hatted workers and new steel rising up above the city. Harold’s Square on the Commons is the most obvious of these projects, but it’s also just the first, with more already approved to follow like the redevelopment of the Green Street Garage.
To keep pace with this, businesses must change as well, adapting much like retail has had to over the last several years to combat the infringement of online sellers. What that can mean is, unfortunately, more closings than usual as a result of changing demands, but hopefully those closings are matched by openings to balance them out. According to Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, there have been 24 new businesses to open in downtown Ithaca, while only five businesses have closed their doors.
For 2019, four businesses have moved to a new location or expanded, and there are four new businesses scheduled or will be opening in 2019. In 2018, there were 21 new businesses opened. Compared to previous years, though, Ferguson described this as a normal turnover rate.
“It’s somewhat normal in terms of turnover,” Ferguson said. “Every year we have some turnover. But that’s fairly typical. What was actually pretty good this year was the number of new businesses, that’s slightly more than usual so that’s a good thing. We have been seeing some renewed interest. Often times, I tell people that in a normal downtown, and particularly ours is a good example, you expect to see a five percent turnover rate, year over year because businesses come and go for many different reasons.”
As for businesses that closed this year, Ferguson found the primary reason was that people wanted to retire instead of actual downward market pressures. Two of the most noticeable storefronts that remain vacant are Sahara Mediterranean Restaurant and Hal’s Diner locations. The business is one of the many vacant pieces of property to remain vacant along with the former Sahara Mediterranean Resturant and Hal’s Diner locations. Both of those have sat empty for quite a while. However, in the coming months, a salon will be occupying the former site of Hal’s, though little additional information is available at this time.
The openings have been marked by highlights like the debut of the City Centre building, the Canopy by Hilton hotel, Angelheart Diner and the upcoming opening of the new Chase Bank location (on the groundfloor of the City Centre building). They are arguably the most noticeable of the new openings, shining brightly and attracting businesses excited at the fresh opportunities; that’s especially true of City Centre, which will welcome Ithaca Ale House into its groundfloor, joining the aforementioned Chase Bank and the newly-moved Collegetown Bagel.
Some other recent business openings have disrupted the normal pattern of restaurants and retail that normally dominates the downtown shopping scene. While Your CBD Store, the city’s first CBD-dedicated storefront, celebrates its one year anniversary, competition has opened its doors on the Commons in the form of a new CBD shop that took over where a barbershop used to be. Right next door, The Brain Shoppe, a store for educational toys for kids, also recently debuted.
Of course, that’s just on the Commons. Farther up and down State Street shows two new bars, which are far less common to open than more traditional restaurants or stores. Their origin stories also offer some insight into the current business environment in downtown Ithaca. Before opening the Nowhere Special Libations Parlor, owner James Dean said the storefront had sat empty for two years, despite its prime location at 114 W. State Street and directly across from the State Theatre. Before the bar, the store had housed a tattoo parlor that closed down, and a computer store prior to that.
“The business plan that I had set forth, this area worked for that, and it was sort of an underutilized space,” Dean said. “Switching it over to a little pocket bar, I can run through enough people even on a small night to make it profitable, whereas you’d have to have a really good day tattooing to equal that.”
What could be a good sign for the City of Ithaca, though, is that Dean wasn’t discouraged by the long lag-time between occupancies. Some might think that if a property sits empty for two years, its problems will compound: the longer it sits, the more discouraged entrepreneurs are and the harder they will try to avoid it because they perceive that nobody else wants it either. That’s not necessarily the case, Dean said.
“I did my research with the neighbors and the previous tenants,” Dean said. “Knowing what I’ve heard, I have the know-how to make fixes around here [...] If you’re doing it yourself and you’re proactive, you might be able to make it work.”
Scott Hoyt, the owner of the Donovan Building, located at the corner of Cayuga and Green Streets said the space being vacant for several months is not entirely uncommon. The location formerly housed Sunny Days, which has since moved to the Commons. Following that, there was a gallery that had a short lease. Since then, about mid-July, the space has remained empty. A lone vacancy, Ferguson said, isn’t the most worrisome thing and can actually provide some interesting feedback on its own about where the market is trending and what people are interested in.
“In the case of a corner space like that [the former Sunny Days location], it will take a little longer because they are looking for the right type of businesses that would fit that location,” Ferguson said. “Sure, I’d love to see if full and obviously we’re trying to talk to people to drum up interest. But, I’m not overly concerned. I think it’s still a good location so I think it will do well. It just needs the right connection.”
Other reasons that Ferguson has seen from this year and previous years for businesses shutting down are owners getting tired of the daily retail grind. Ferguson cited Lot10 as an example of this, with the former owners deciding to go in a different direction and selling the business to the owners of Copper Horse Coffee, who intend to retain the business’ name when they reopen (whenever that may be). He further said the aging impact was felt most significantly in DeWitt Mall, where a few legacy businesses closed their doors, like the Bookery.
“DeWitt Mall has been a stable environment where people have stayed for, literally, decades and the turnover there has been literally non-existent for years,” Ferguson said. “And a number of those people really aged out this year. Many of them decided to retire and move on. I think for the first time you see DeWitt Mall with some openings. I would call it an opportunity. Here’s a place that really works hard to work with its businesses and nurtures them and in return, those businesses stay there for decades.”
Dean said the type of bar he runs, which is more lowkey than something like Moonie’s or The Range, caters to a lesser served group of drinkers in Ithaca, ones who like a quieter spot that’s calmer than the more nightclub-centric atmospheres found in Collegetown and on the Commons. That sentiment is reflected by recent openings like the Bike Bar on East State Street, or the impending opening of the new venture by Watershed owners Ashley Cake and Dave Clark, who are opening a draught bar in the space below their current location.
It’s an example of how whether its a new business serving a new population, or an old business tweaking its offerings to better support the city’s changes, Ithaca’s development boom won’t only impact housing.
“All ships rise,” Dean said. “The more difference we have down here, like nightlife, the better.”