It is increasingly likely that Wednesday's Common Council meeting will include further discussion of the long-debated conference center project, a month after a vote that appeared to approve its advancement.
The conference center, which is slated to be part of the Green Street Garage redevelopment, is being developed by Vecino Firm. It's part of a multi-million project that includes 218 units of affordable housing, more parking spaces and, currently, a 49,000 square foot conference center.
Common Council voted on March 11 to approve a financial backing agreement between the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County that would assign financial liability for the center, which is projected to lose about $225,000 per year on its own but provide a boost to downtown Ithaca businesses and hotels. The Tompkins County Legislature approved the deal on March 17.
At least two Common Council members, George McGonigal and Graham Kerslick, told the Ithaca Times they do still have concerns about the financial responsibility that the City of Ithaca would bear for the project. Those fears have been exacerbated by the massive economic downturn that has been evident locally in the wake of the coronavirus' rampage across the country.
"We need to look at it with more information about the city's willingness to back it up given the new economic conditions," McGonigal said. He voted in favor of the project when Council approved it, though stated reservations at the time. "We're not doing anything yet, we want new data. [...] I'd say more than the next couple months. We don't know how long it's going to last. This is supposed to be initially funded by room taxes that are collected it even opens. If those room taxes aren't there, then you start out in the hole right from the get-go."
Common Council members Donna Fleming and Cynthia Brock were the lone dissenting votes against the project; Fleming has long opposed it, while Brock cited the outbreak last month as a potential wrench in the works.
The project was supposed to be partially supported not only by direct payments from local hotels, but also a newly-established hotel room occupancy tax that would add a bit onto the bill of people staying in hotel rooms. That money would then go towards helping cover the operating costs of the conference center. But, McGonigal said, if nobody's traveling for the foreseeable future, the reliability of those payments is thrown into question.
There currently is not a vote scheduled for Wednesday night's Common Council meeting, simply a "discussion" and analysis of the conference center. IURA Director Nels Bohn said Wednesday that he and Deputy Director of Planning Tom Knipe had created a memo and new forecasts that would project lower hotel revenues than had previously been considered, which they would be presenting to Common Council on Wednesday.
The consequences of reversing course are unclear at this point, and Vecino has not answered a request for comment on the situation. Vecino's appearance Tuesday night before the Planning Board made it clear they are proceeding with the plan as it has currently been approved, with a conference center component.
Vecino has been clear, Bohn said, that in order to meet their deadline to submit the project to the state for a low-income housing tax credit, they'll need to have nearly every detail nailed down by the end of the calendar year so they can submit a full application.
"That's been driving the issue for several months now," Bohn said. "Everybody would like more time to think about it, but it doesn't work with one of the main drivers of the project, which is the affordable housing and securing the financing for that."
Vecino had previously said that the last date they were comfortable with waiting until for the City of Ithaca to decide whether it wanted a conference center or not was March 17, the same day the County Legislature voted to approve.
"They were ready on March 18, if the county didn't support the conference center in the way that was discussed, they were going to move overnight to focus on the ground-floor commercial use and a larger housing component," Bohn said. "But since the vote went the other way, in favor, they moved forward with the conference center. [...] They've been clear that they need to know what the plan is, and they've been working to bring the project forward as they understand it."
Bohn said whichever way Common Council decides to go, he'd encourage them to come to that decision promptly, while acknowledging the difficulty of making a decision with such weighty global factors at play and unpredictable.
"A decision one way or the other is definitely my recommendation on how the council should proceed," Bohn said. "Don't delay it. It's a big investment for everybody, so there's certainly reason to want to have more time. More time gives you more information, and what everybody is so concerned about is when is the economy going to rebound? When is social distancing going to stop? There's good reason to want to look at this question."