Correction: This article previously stated that the City of Ithaca had submitted a Consolidated Funding Grant application in connection to the project. That application was submitted by the Tompkins County Chamber Foundation.
The City of Ithaca has recently received the results of a follow-up feasibility and demand analysis to determine the local market for a conference center as the city’s long flirtation with bringing a large-scale event space to Ithaca heats up.
If anything, the results of the study serve to reinforce the first study’s findings, which were released in 2017: Ithaca can handle, and even greatly benefit from, a conference center, and the market’s demand is actually markedly higher than previously determined.
Conducted by Hunden Strategic Partners, the second study presented three sets of numbers for conference center usage: best case, middle and worst case. Using the middle numbers, Hunden projected 27 major conferences per year and 180 total events, a substantial increase from the 2017 projections.
Additionally, Hunden found that in order to differentiate itself, Ithaca’s conference center should likely be built larger than other similar event spaces in the region. That fits with what the City of Ithaca has already asked of Vecino, the presumptive developer of the Green Street Garage, which initially met the city’s request of 30,000 square feet (SF) before expanding the proposed center to 49,000 SF at the city’s request. That would easily be the largest in the Southern Tier, more than doubling the Doubletree Hilton in Binghamton, and would be the seventh largest in all of upstate New York.
As for ballroom space, which is theoretically meant to host the largest events, that would also be one of the most sizable in operation around Upstate New York, as the Green Street Garage proposal is 12,285 SF. It would hold 817 people banquet-style or 1,117 theater-style. It’s a two-floor proposal, with ballroom space on the second floor and meeting space on the ground floor.
“If Ithaca is able to develop a conference center with a ballroom of 10,000 SF or larger, it would be amongst the largest facilities in the state outside of the New York City metropolitan area,” the study states. “As designed, the proposed conference center will have more than a 12,000-SF ballroom.”
As the conference center proposal progresses, even with alternatives still on the table, there was a clear sense among city officials publicly that they wanted deeper and more current information than had been included in the initial demand study. That’s especially true since, as Downtown Ithaca Alliance Executive Director Gary Ferguson noted, there is now a specific location on the table at the Green Street Garage, whereas the previous study did not pinpoint any tangible spot for the center to be built. That could also explain the higher demand results, Ferguson said.
“In their revisit of the materials and looking at the marketplace, they came back and said ‘You need a bigger facility, and it should be around 49,000 square feet,’” Ferguson said. “That way, the hotels would be supportive, as you’re not cannibalizing them. You’re giving them a new product that they would not otherwise have been able to get.”
According to the study, it would take until the fourth year of operation for the conference center to stabilize, at which point it would run at an annual deficit of $225,000. That’s not unusual for the industry, according to Ferguson, and the losses incurred there would be made up for in general economic stimulation from the crowds attracted by the conference center’s events, boosting revenue in lodging, local restaurants, etc. According to the report, a conference center at the proposed size would generate annual attendance of 62,600 people and 22,000 new annual room nights. Hunden’s study states that, without a competitively sized facility currently, 5,300 room nights are lost each year.
The largest question that remains, about any conference center proposal going forward but specifically the Green Street Garage proposal, is funding. The city is currently up for a $10 million grant from New York State, called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, and the Tompkins Chamber Foundation recently submitted a Consolidated Funding Application to the state for $5 million, with help from Downtown Ithaca Alliance and Visit Ithaca, according to Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Tavares. The former will be announced in the coming weeks, but the latter grant won’t be announced until December. That cuts it quite close to the Jan. 31, 2020 deadline set by Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency Director Nels Bohn, by which he said a final decision needs to be made about whether to proceed with the conference center as part of the Green Street Garage redevelopment, or to continue with one of the alternatives.
“At the end of the day, can we do it?” Ferguson said. “The answer is two-fold. We have to produce that new funding stream, which I think we can do but it would take some work to pull that together. Secondly, we have to get some grant support. That’s the wild card—if we get to the end of January and we don’t have it, I don’t know what to do. But we are making every effort now to turn over every stone.”