The Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (TCIDA) held a public hearing at the Ithaca town hall on Thursday, Nov.14 to formal collect reactions from the community in reference to the proposed tax exemptions for the Holiday Inn on South Cayuga Street following its renovation. Public comment was divided along predictable lines: business boosters favored the exemption and those concerned with social justice did not.
Heather Filiberto, the director of economic development services for Tompkins Couny Area Development (TCAD), which administrates TCIDA, read a formal statement that outlined the reason for the hearing. “The financial assistance contemplated by the IDA,” Filiberto read, “will consist generally of exemption from taxation expected to be claimed by [hotel owner Llenroc LP] …, consisting of exemption from state and local sales and use tax with respect to the qualifying personal property portion of [the Holiday Inn]. The “qualifying portion” is Phase 1 of the renovation, which includes changes to the tower, the lobby, the “balcony guest room” (79 units out of 180 total), and renovation of the existing meeting room space.
David Hart, the head of Llenroc LP, was present at the hearing, but did not make a public statement.
Teresa Alt, a member of the “leadership team” at Tompkins County Workers Center, expressed bafflement at the application for a tax exemption.
“There is no increased in the assessed property value, no new jobs, and the existing jobs don’t pay a living wage,” she said. “I do see a commitment to diversity, but he is using a contractor from western New York State, not a local contractor. Why is this application even being considered?”
Pete Meyers, the president of the Workers Center, noted that no member of the TCIDA board had bothered to attend the hearing to hear public comment. “That makes this feel pretty much like a done deal,” he said.
“Hart Hotels is not run as a non-profit,” Meyers continued. “This seems like an unfair advantage to a large corporation. There are plenty of small businesses that can’t get a tax abatement who could really use one.” Meyers also echoed Alt’s disappointment at the failure of the project to use local labor or to promise a living wage.
David Turkon is an anthropology professor at Ithaca College and a Trumansburg resident. He criticized the project on the grounds that it did contribute to “community development.”
“This is a hand-out,” he said. “Hotels are lucky to be here. Let’s do this right. Put a living wage on the agenda. The workers at that hotel can’t afford to shop at the high-end places on the Commons. Diversity if fine, but getting people a living wage is important.”
Failing to demand a living wage, Turkon said, simply shift the burden to social services. He would like to see projects that benefit the whole community, not just the business community.
Joan Lockwood is a former Ithaca resident who spent 14 years living in Salem, Ore. before moving back to Ithaca. “In Salem we saw a lot of building,” she said. “They built a conference center that is now definitely under used. They built brand-new mixed-use buildings that are empty. I know that Ithaca isn’t Salem, but where is the hard evidence that we need a conference center?”
Gary Ferguson, the director of Downtown Ithaca Alliance, and Bruce Stoff, the director of the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau, both spoke in favor of the project and the proposed tax exemptions.
“This is the kind of project that was contemplated when the abatement program was introduced,” said Ferguson. “It is a large and complex project. It has been sometime since anyone has invested in this property. Do we want it to grow old and stagnate?”
Ferguson looked forward to the creation of the conference center. “This has been a community priority for a long time,” the DIA director said. He praised the project for including worker housing and for using existing infrastructure like the city parking garage across the street.
“Modernization is important,” said Stoff. “The public is always going to going to go for the newest thing.”
He said that the abatement existed as an incentive for businesses to build downtown, which is a more costly thing to do. “A lot of hoops have been put up in front of this project,” said the CVB director, “and Mr. Hart has jumped through all of them.
Stoff finished by noting that last year the Holiday Inn generated $440,000 in sales tax and over $200,000 in room tax for the county.
The TCIDA board meets on Thursday, Nov. 31 at 3:30 p.m. in the county legislature chamber on East Court Street. According to Filiberto, at that time they will discuss the abatement and probably vote on whether to grant it.