Gary Ferguson

Gary Ferguson, Downtown Ithaca Alliance executive director, speaks during the Commons rebuild project kickoff event on Monday, April 8.

The State of New York has selected the village of Johnson City as the recipient for the round six $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative award for the Southern Tier. We congratulate Johnson City on its DRI-winning efforts. This award will help them forward their aspirations for a revitalized downtown area around the former factory buildings that once were engines of its economy.

However, for Ithaca, this is the sixth consecutive time that we have missed out on the opportunity to participate in this State program, which aims to elevate downtown centers through transformational projects that will stimulate new development, investment, and job creation. 

Previously, some application reviewers expressed the opinion that Ithaca did not need DRI assistance, as we had the continued support of Cornell University, and construction cranes were a regular sight in our city. They recommended that the funding be directed towards areas that lack the advantages of Ithaca. In our sixth-round application, we tried to persuade Southern Tier decision-makers that DRI funds were imperative for improving Ithaca. 

This news brings both disappointment and renewed determination.

The disappointment comes from our realization that our community cannot achieve many of its goals and address many of its needs without State assistance and support. Ithacans are indeed accustomed to seeing construction cranes in our area, mostly for housing development projects. We have a chronic demand for new housing (some 7,000 units as of 2017).  Developers have invested in our community to meet this need. However, despite the ongoing construction, our community still faces a substantial shortage of housing units. Even with all the cranes and construction, we remain acutely short of the desired equilibrium of demand and supply of housing. This housing deficit has caused housing costs in Ithaca to increase continually, making it one of the most expensive places to live in the nation.

As we prepared our round-six application, we realized that we had been including many of the same set of needs and projects in our proposals for over a decade. It's a stark reality that while Ithaca can attract housing development owing to its unfulfilled residential demand, community initiatives often require outside assistance to take shape. Without the necessary subsidies or support, projects like revamping Dewitt Park, establishing a Six Mile Creek Trail, launching child care and youth centers, and setting up a retail incubator in the downtown area, are nothing but mere aspirations.

Our round six application focused on rebuilding and strengthening West Downtown. Much of our new development and investment has occurred in the central and eastern sections of Downtown. West Downtown has not received the same attention, and we determined that a DRI award would be an ideal way to jump-start this key, strategic area of our urban core. 

Despite our disappointment, we remain resolute in our commitment to investing in the west downtown area. As stated in our application, this area serves as a vital link between the bustling Commons portion of Downtown and the waterfront, as well as the well-traveled Route 13 corridor. For many visitors driving along Route 13, their first impression of Ithaca and its Downtown is a stretch of unappealing highway they pass through without stopping. Furthermore, Route 13 has long been a significant pedestrian barrier, separating the traditional Downtown from Ithaca’s West End and West Side.

Although West State Street was rebricked in 2002, the roadway has since deteriorated, and no amenities have been added to the corridor, leaving it as a poor pedestrian connector. These needs will not go away; they will only intensify. 

Our DRI application called for extensive investment in infrastructure in this area and the creation of community amenities and projects that would make West Downtown a place people desire to live, visit, work, and patronize. We have a well-thought-out, community-driven plan for improving West Downtown and making it a destination and a place that will serve all Ithacans. With a DRI, we could tackle this challenge head-on and all at once. Without this support, we must once again become creative and persistent in our efforts to bring investment and quality-of-life improvements to West Downtown. 

With renewed determination, let’s work as a community to address the challenges of West Downtown and the West End. Bit by bit, project by project, let’s enact our community-led strategies, to improve opportunities for all, expand our vision of Downtown, and create a place where all are welcomed, served, and proud.

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