ITHACA, NY -- As the state hits a 70% vaccination rate and COVID cases hover around 10 locally, local agencies are starting to think about what economic recovery will look like in Tompkins County in a post-pandemic world.
Heather McDaniel, president of Ithaca Area Economic Development (IAED), presented a county-wide economic recovery strategy to the Planning and Economic Development Committee of the Common Council on June 16. She said the plan is a result of collaboration between IAED, Downtown Ithaca Alliance, Visit Ithaca, Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, Alliance for Manufacturing and Technology, Workforce New York and the Tompkins Chamber of Commerce.
McDaniel said they’ve been doing regular surveys with businesses throughout the pandemic to keep a pulse on the economy, and are currently looking at upcoming challenges and opportunities as the area begins to recover. The three phases of the recovery outlined by McDaniel are response, stabilization, and redevelopment and revitalization.
Much of the response and stabilization phases—the first two phases— took place during the crisis. IAED and other agencies worked to provide business-saving loans and grants to area businesses to retain jobs.
The third phase looks forward to the next two or three years and focuses on actions that will support redevelopment and revitalization. That has been broken into three parts — targeted sectors, workforce and infrastructure.
“This is very much a companion piece to the economic development strategy that’s already in place,” McDaniel said.
The focus will be heavily on local businesses, which McDaniel described as the “lifeblood of our downtown and other parts of our community.”
There will also be a concentration on the tourism and hospitality businesses, which were hit particularly hard during the pandemic, and the office market, which McDaniel said has been significantly impacted by the shift to working from home.
“We have seen some very high vacancy rates,” she said. “We’re trying to identify ways to recruit office tenants or repurpose some of those office spaces. Nationally, office markets are not expected to rebound until 2025.”
McDaniel also said there will be an effort to help local manufacturers adopt technology to streamline their production processes to be more competitive.
“It’s all focused on job opportunities,” she said. “As long as people have jobs and our job base is healthy, our community is healthy and is going to thrive.”
Continuing in that vein, McDaniel reiterated the importance of the workforce to recovery, as low wage, entry level workers were the most heavily impacted by the pandemic.
“We’ll be looking at strategies around closing skill gaps, and identifying training opportunities to train out-of-work people for in-demand jobs of today and tomorrow,” she said. “There’s a new reality to the workforce.”
She added that the Workforce Development Board has a pandemic skills map that identifies new in-demand job opportunities. Now they are working on implementing earn-and-learn training programs.
The final pillar of the recovery plan is infrastructure.
“We look at infrastructure in our regular development strategy, but there are key areas that need to be supported,” McDaniel said.
She said downtown Ithaca is essential to retaining and attracting a workforce and investments in the community.
“It contributes to a high quality of life for everyone, and also anchors arts and culture organizations, an absolute must-have for visitors,” she said. “We want to attract people to live, work and play here. There are a number of actions focused on supporting small business downtown, entrepreneurship downtown. We need to have more supports to bring people together downtown.”
Transportation is a big part of that, and McDaniel said they had been working on the “first mile, last mile” transportation issues, as well as shorter trips that will help get people to and from work and activities.
She also said there are key development sites, such as the waterfront, Inlet Island, Chain Works and the West End that will serve to bolster the tax base and increase housing and business opportunities.
“If you increase the pie you have more budget to support all those quality of life things we want,” she said.
Broadband will be the last infrastructure piece of focus.
“We’ve been working with a $465,000 grant we got during the pandemic to put in a broadband line from Dryden through Lansing,” McDaniel said. “We’re taking more of a leadership role in identifying gaps in broadband service and finding economical ways to increase broadband.”