The fourth time’s the charm. Is that the saying?
Ithaca will make a fourth attempt at securing a $10 million grant from the New York State Regional Economic Development Council (REDC), part of an annual competition of cities competing to make the best case to state officials for funding downtown revitalization projects. If they win, exciting plans could begin to progress for downtown.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick made the presentation to state officials from the REDC on July 8, with only 10 minutes allotted to prove why Ithaca deserves the money over its competitors. Ithaca has been among the five regional finalists each of the competition’s four years, but has never won. The Downtown Regional Initiative (DRI), as this grant program is known, was started by Gov. Andrew Cuomo four years ago to help spark growth in different parts of the state: 10 winning municipalities are chosen from the 10 pre-determined regions throughout New York. Each winner is given $10 million to dedicate to a project or projects of its choosing to facilitate downtown economic health.
The newest part of that application to Ithacans is the extension plans of the Ithaca Commons: in the application, Myrick said they are proposing the idea of lengthening the Commons one street block down West State Street, if indeed they are awarded the $10 million. That would mean making the 100 block of West State Street, which includes landmark Ithaca icons like the State Theatre, Gorger’s Subs, and that tasteful little Adult Outlet variety store, into a pedestrian-only walkway, just like the rest of the Commons. Cayuga Street would continue uninterrupted, just presumably with more foot traffic to navigate. It’s the first time a Commons extension has been proposed as part of Ithaca’s DRI application. The new Ithaca Commons officially opened in 2015 after years of rehabilitation, and has become a popular spot once again for nightlife and retail.
“These things will not only help our city and our downtown, they’ll help the entire region,” Myrick said in an interview, noting that the application was heavily influenced by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s 2030 strategic plan, which is currently being formulated as well. “There’s very little downside [...] The biggest would be that it would hinder traffic from east-to-west, but the truth is that there isn’t much traffic from east-west. You can just go to Geneva Street if that’s what you want to do.”
While the Commons expansion, which has been discussed intermittently for years, might be the gaudiest part of the proposal, Myrick said it represents a fairly small portion of the potential plans. In the event of a win, other targets for funding would be affordable housing projects (like Vecino’s redevelopment of the Green Street Garage, but others as well), transportation upgrades, sidewalk infrastructure repairs, street-light conversions, streets and pothole repairs, and parking upgrades. The latter, Myrick said, could include parking garage improvements and even building another parking garage, which would represent one of the biggest expenses. Popping up for a second straight year is the conference center, another oft-mentioned proposal that may accompany the Green Street Garage redevelopment. Finally, Myrick also mentioned that installing universal WiFi downtown may also be examined.
Myrick added that the proposed health hub is included in the application as well. The health hub, at least as it was designed in a push for a $5 million grant from the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge last year, is conceived as a “one-stop shop” of social services that would hopefully house a host of harm reduction services, centered on addiction treatment, as well as housing and career services for those who need them. It could also, theoretically, host a safe injection facility (or safe consumption site), as was proposed last year during the Mayor’s Challenge competition. Common Council member Steve Smith, who worked on that proposal last year, said earlier this year that one of the reasons Bloomberg had shied away from Ithaca’s proposal was because of the inclusion of a safe injection facility, which are still technically illegal in New York State. Myrick said the safe injection facility is not part of the presentation for the DRI grant.
Myrick said the waiting period could be as brief as a few weeks or as long as several months before the city is notified if it won.
“We’ve never won before, so we’re really going with a full-court press strategy,” Myrick said. “The Downtown Ithaca Alliance and the city have put together a very strong application this year.”
Ithaca’s growth, Myrick said, and relative economic health can actually work against it in these types of scenarios. While Ithaca has reached the finals each year, its needs have been outpaced by other cities in the region that are facing economic downturn or whose recovery from the economic crash a decade ago has been slower than Ithaca’s. Previous winners in the Southern Tier region were Elmira, Watkins Glen and Owego.
“Each year, we make the case that our downtown is kind of booming—we’re seeing a lot of growth there,” he said, explaining that the city has tried to convince the state that Ithaca is the best choice for the state to see return on its millions in investment, but to no avail as other places’ struggles make it less politically popular to assist Ithaca. “Other places aren’t seeing that as much.”
While lofty rents and affordable housing stock continue to plague the city, Myrick said the economic growth that Ithaca has experienced over the last several years make it a unique case in central New York, and usually weaken its case for an influx of funds in light of other municipalities who might have more dire issues the money can be used to fix. Myrick said he’d be highlighting the housing struggles in particular as one of the city’s primary reasons for pursuing the grant.
“That’s why I’m going to make the presentation, to make the case that our problems are real too, and our opportunities are real,” Myrick said.