ITHACA, N.Y. — During a meeting at City Hall on Thursday night, Ithaca Council member Cynthia Brock said that there’s not enough to do on the new Ithaca Commons and that its merchants should keep their stores open later.

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“I’ve been on the Commons a couple of times, on the weekends and the evenings, and the stores are closed,” Brock said.

“Here we have this beautiful plaza … but except for the festivals, there’s very little to do there.”

Brock’s comments contrast with those of Mayor Svante Myrick and other members of City Hall staff, who have hailed the new Commons as a leap forward for the downtown business district.

Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, defended the Commons in an interview on Friday and said that the DIA was doing what it could to coordinate later hours among local merchants.

“Actually, I would argue there’s lots to do downtown,” Ferguson said, citing institutions like Cinemapolis and the State Theatre in addition to the strip’s retail and dining options.

“Can you meet all your shopping needs downtown? No, probably not, but that’s not the point … we want to put together a center of the community that people can feel proud of, that people like, that brings people down for many different reasons — for dining, for shopping, for entertainment.”

Ferguson also noted that, unlike business owners in a strip mall, Commons merchants are independent businesses whose hours are not controlled or set by the DIA.

DIA director: ‘The center of your community is not the middle of your highway strip’

On Thursday, Council member Brock suggested that the city is investing too much by way of public resources on the Commons when it is, in reality, a relatively small part of its economic base.

“The festivals are a wonderful thing, but when we talk about where our tax dollars come from … It’s Route 13 South,” she said. “There’s a limit to how much the taxpayer can contribute.”

“I’ll be frank, the second time you go there and the stores are closed … you just don’t go. I just don’t go unless I’m going to a restaurant.”

Ferguson, of the DIA, responded on Friday that the Commons were worthwhile of investment even if — as he acknowledged — it doesn’t generate the most sales tax revenue in the city.

“You might get more sales tax out of a car dealership, but that doesn’t mean it’s the center of your city … there are a lot of strip developments throughout the United States — places with no community, and no character, and I expect all of them would die for a downtown like the one we have,” Ferguson said.

“I would at all times say the center of your community is not the middle of your highway strip, even if it may be where you get sales tax revenue.”

The disagreement between Brock and Ferguson surfaced at City Hall Thursday night amid a discussion of whether the Council should increase spending for maintenance on the Commons. (Check later in the Ithaca Voice for a discussion of that issue.)

“I’d like to find out what contribution the DIA is making toward the maintenance of the Commons and what efforts are being put in place to have a standardized open and closed period of time when someone can predictably go to the Commons,” Brock said.

“I’ve gone there many Sunday mornings trying to find a birthday gift for a child only to find the Commons closed.”

As Brock’s critique of the new Commons wound down, Common Council member Donna Fleming laughed in response.

“You’re on quite a run there,” Fleming said to Brock, “is there anything else on your mind?”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.