Copyright Ithaca Week 2015

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Frances Johnson and Steven Pirani for Ithaconomy, an Ithaca College student publication and is republished with their permission.

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ITHACA, NY – Thanks to added funding, Tompkins County will see the beginning of a new program with goals of both humanitarian and economic benefit.

It’s been only a few months, but even now the construction that ailed the Ithaca Commons from 2013 to 2015 seems like some old shadow of a past life. Reopened in late August of this year, the “new” Commons has been bustling, with festivals, musical performances and more bringing in visitors from all about the Finger Lakes region. And while events like this bring in foot traffic, a question still remains: Have small businesses benefitted from this sweeping construction?

This focus on the local businesses and shops on The Commons should come as no surprise for anyone who had followed the area’s lengthy construction process. As the construction wore on — ultimately surpassing its projected opening date by more than a year — small businesses expressed concern over waning traffic and the overall chaotic status of the area. Some closed, and even today one can spot several “for rent” signs dotting The Commons. David Wrisley, owner of Schooley’s Jewelers, said the consequences of construction, like dirt and debris, made the area less appealing during its renovation.

“In terms of when the construction started to the time it finished, you could definitely see things progressively got slower and slower for foot traffic,” Wrisley said. “And who can blame the consumer? It’s dirty, it’s nasty. Imagine having to come to work every day and wash your shoes off just to come inside.”

Now it’s a different story. Dirt has been replaced with brick, and the construction barriers are nowhere to be found. Just removing the fences that blocked off certain areas of The Commons, Wrisely said, made a major difference in business.

“As soon as they took the fencing away, it was like the seas parted, and people starting flying in onto The Commons,” he said.

Just down the way from Wrisley’s shop is American Crafts by Robbie Dein, a two-floor nexus for local artists and artisans to sell their hand-made wares. Manager Joseph Gaylord said his shop, which occupies one of the central corners of The Commons, also saw an increase in business almost immediately, echoing Wrisley’s sentiments. He said the renovated locale is succeeding in attracting the town regulars as well as a collection of visitors.

“All the people that used to visit here are back visiting here, and all the people that live in the area that were avoiding the construction are back visiting as well,” Gaylord said. “There has been a definite increase in business.”

However, with optimism comes a bit of caution. Traffic has been good, but many business owners and employees will be clear: only time will tell. Eden Mayora, shop manager at wine and cider shop The Cellar D’Or, said tourist season, along with Ithaca’s teeming student body, could play a big role in the future business of The Commons.

“[The festivals] coincided with tourist season and students coming back, so we’re still not sure how much of that is simply tourist season, and students overlapping, and The Commons being finished all at the same time, and so we’re hoping that continues,” Mayora said. “So far, it seems like it is, which is very good, and it seems like we’re having less of days where it’s completely dead. There’s always at least a steady kind of trickle, or kind of steady flow of people, which is nice.”

Behind the scenes, businesses may also see some benefits as the months turn to years on this renovated space. Joseph Wetmore, owner of Autumn Leaves Used Books, said it is important to note that beyond the cosmetic impact of the construction, the developments also optimized the entire area’s infrastructure, presumably for the betterment of the businesses within it.

“We were dealing with … construction for years, where this water main broke, or this person needed a sewer hookup that wasn’t working, and that kind of thing,” Wetmore said. “That’s all been replaced. So we’re not going to be seeing a lot of back-hoes on The Commons digging big holes, because we fixed all that stuff this time.”

It would seem that, on The Commons, the renovations bring with them much to enjoy, and much to consider looking toward the future. Business owners like Gaylord are quick to say it: The result was surely worth the wait.

“I truly think, in the long run, it’s going to be totally worth the change,” Gaylord said. “Totally worth the reconstruction. The whole view of The Commons is much better. You can see the architecture. There more light, it’s more open. The first two months that The Commons was open, there were kids and parents playing on the playground at nine o’clock at night. You never had that at the old Commons.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.