Whether or not the Green Street Garage redevelopment will include one of the largest conference centers in Upstate New York has been one of the most frequent questions of the last several months, and the city might not have a final answer until January.
That's according to a presentation given to Common Council members Wednesday night, during which City of Ithaca Deputy Director of Economic Development Tom Knipe and Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA) Director Nels Bohn laid out the current status of the conference center and what could happen until the end of January. That's when the IURA has imposed its own deadline to choose definitively if the Green Street Garage project, a 217-unit affordable housing and mixed-use project being developed by Vecino, will include a conference center.
The main question appears to be whether satisfactory funding can be secured in order to make the conference center financially viable. It is projected to run at a loss of $200,000 or so per year, though theoretically the economic impact to restaurants and businesses in Ithaca would outweigh that loss. Ithaca lost one opportunity to fund the project when they lost out on the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, which would have given the city $10 million to spend on a litany of different downtown projects.
Knipe revealed one silver lining to that, though: in the wake of the announcement that Hornell had won the $10 million awarded in Ithaca's region, New York State officials indicated to city officials that they might have a chance at an Upstate Revitalization Initiative grant.
"We received outreach from the state, maybe they felt bad, I'm not sure," Knipe said. "Basically, the components that would go into the URI would be the conference center gap, the eastern-center section of the Green [Street] Garage parking assistance, and the wraparound neighborhood infrastructure. Based on state interest, we do believe there's a window of opportunity that won't be there forever that we may have an opportunity to apply for and receive a URI grant for the Green Street Garage redevelopment and these components."
Knipe said that the city is probably the best-suited applicant for the grant, though DIA has started the work so far. There's a time-crunch though: the application is due in the next few days, and hopefully the city will find out the state's intentions before the end of January.
As for the conference center itself, Knipe called the project "transformative" and "once in a generation," listing its upside and economic boon potential. The plan is still 49,000 sq feet of a conference center, which would be two stories with either 15 divisible breakout rooms or two ballrooms. It would be the third largest conference center in terms of "sellable space" in Upstate New York, according to the presentation.
Bohn said that by the end of January, he'd like to see the following factors in place that would make a conference center investment more secure and affordable:
- a gap filling grant (like the URI, for instance)
- lodging industry stream of income (like a tax added to hotel room bills)
- a workable financing model
- a project pro forma that ensures success
There's a small squeeze in that Vecino has been told that they have the best chance of getting financial help from the state, based on the affordable housing component, if they submit their application during the first quarter of 2020. Bohn said that led to his agency's late-January deadline.
Knipe said local lodging providers have been very supportive of a conference center funding plan, though details of the possible tax on their guests have yet to be ironed out. The plan, called a Tourism Improvement District, would add a small fee to each guest's final bill, which would go towards offsetting the operating loss of the conference center and support it.
One other big question is who would own and operate the facility. DIA, Bohn said, has agreed to consider being the owner nominally, though they would be "backstopped" by the city and county in terms of financial security, mostly concerning bank loans. Operation and management would likely be handled by a third party.
"We only get one chance to do this block. The Conference center belongs here," Knipe said as reasons in support of the center despite its risks. "We have a narrow window, and we have the state's ear for a grant right now. We can access dollars for parking along with the conference center, saving taxpayers millions in capital costs."
Most of the council's questions after the presentation had to do with funding, and how much risk the city would be taking on by, essentially, co-signing the bank loan to the DIA, likely alongside Tompkins County. Council member Ducson Nguyen asked what the normal demographic that can be expected if the conference center is built, to which Conventions and Visitors Bureau Peggy Coleman replied that she's heard interest from the New York State School Board, the NYS Funeral Directors Association, a multi-year wrestling tournament, the NYS Veterinarian Technicians Association, and others.
DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson reassured the council that any plan involving the city's backing would be thoroughly vetted, theoretically removing any financial volatility and ensuring that the DIA would be able to cover the loan costs.
"The expectation on all parties when you put this deal together is that it will cash well and make some sense," Ferguson said. "There's no way we're going to put a deal in front of anybody unless it can pass that test."
The city and county would essentially serve as security nets for the conference center, in that scenario.