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ITHACA, NY -- A groundbreaking on the afternoon of Sept. 24 saw a milestone reached in the years-long effort to bring a conference center, affordable housing, and more parking to downtown Ithaca.

What started with a crumbling garage in need of repair transformed into a massive private-public partnership that will result in a 12-story building that includes 181 low- and moderate-income apartments, a 49,000 sq.ft. conference center, 350 public parking spots and a small retail space built by the Vecino Group. 

The garage demolition has been underway since mid-summer, but the groundbreaking made the start of construction official. During the hour-long groundbreaking ceremony elected officials, leaders of local agencies and representatives from the Vecino Group lauded each others’ efforts to make the project a reality.

“We could have just done the simple thing and rebuilt the garage,” Mayor Svante Myrick said. “But this is Ithaca, so we never just do the simple thing.”

Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance Gary Ferguson echoed that, and said that in most places it would have just been a garage.

“Instead of just trying to rebuild it, our city leadership reached out and said, ‘let’s do something different,’” he said. “It was a wise and sage decision.”

Ferguson said in 2002 a consulting firm studied Ithaca to see if it would be a good place for a conference center, but ultimately decided no.

“They told us we didn’t have enough downtown hotel rooms to support a conference center at that time, and they were probably right,” he said. “And they told us that nobody would come to Ithaca to come to meetings. Why would anyone drive to a place like Ithaca, off the beaten path? So it got put aside.”

The project was picked back up again in 2016.

“We have four wonderful downtown hotels, two inns, and an inventory of hotel rooms that can support a conference center,” Ferguson said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do since 2016. And here we are at the groundbreaking.”

Assemblywoman Dr. Anna Kelles, who worked closely on the project during her time on the Tompkins County Legislature, noted that the conference center will bring visitors to Ithaca during the weekdays, instead of only on weekends.

“We will have a place to attract people ot our city in the middle of the week,” she said. “This is a huge boon and we need to hold that and honor that and celebrate it.”

She also touched upon the affordability aspect of the project, and the struggle for affordable housing in Ithaca and Tompkins County in general. All 181 units will be listed for below 80% of area median income (AMI), which Kelles said is about $1,300 in Ithaca currently. 

“When you ask people who are low income who work here, they say ‘I can’t afford that,’” she said. “I want to be really honest about that. We have the job of increasing housing in all brackets but also need to explicitly prioritize housing below 80% AMI. If we do that, the 80% will pull down and it will truly become affordable. This building does that. I am grateful to everyone who worked on this. This is a great day.”

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