ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County will be turning 200 years old next year. They might be celebrating that milestone in a grand way – construction of a new “Heritage Education Center” celebrating two centuries of history and culture, and what the county hopes will be a tourism draw.

The Heritage Center is proposed for the multi-building complex at 106-112 North Tioga Street, a Bank Alley property currently owned by Tompkins Financial Corporation (TFC, the parent company of Tompkins Trust Company). The oldest part, 106 North Tioga (the two-story building) dates from 1863, and was the County Clerk’s Office prior to being acquired by TFC in 1949. The three-story north building has been owned by TFC and its predecessors since its construction in 1895. Various renovations from the 1950s through 1980s brought the buildings together as a bank complex with a modern connector space between them.

However, TFC’s long sojourn on Bank Alley is about to come to a close. The bank plans on vacating the 18,826 square-foot space when it moves into its new headquarters on East Seneca Street in March 2018.

Meanwhile, The History Center, a non-profit dedicated to educating and promoting the history and culture of Tompkins County and Ithaca, has also been looking at their options – the 25-year lease they have in the Gateway Commons building a few blocks away expires in 2018. Examining their options for alternative downtown sites, TFC’s historic and highly-visible Bank Alley space showed up on their radar, and the idea of a heritage education center was hatched.

If carried forward, the plan is for the county to purchase the complex from TFC, and work with history and cultural organizations like The History Center to renovate the buildings and provide space for a museum and welcome center that stores and showcases artifacts, accounts and records from the county’s 200 years of existence. The ultimate goal is to not only be a local attraction, but to be a destination for visitors from across the region and state, and an anchor for downtown Ithaca tourism.

According to the official press release, Rod Howe, the Executive Director of The History Center, is “pleased by the County’s willingness to explore acquisition of a building that has great potential to serve Tompkins County residents and visitors, is in a central location, and has the right architectural character to house complementary non-profits coming together in a common space.” Other organizations involved in the heritage center effort include the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Wharton Studio Museum, the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation and Historic Ithaca, among others.

The first steps in the heritage center plan may be taken next Wednesday, when the county legislature’s Government Operations Committee is set to review and vote on a $15,000 request to perform a structural, mechanical and codes assessment of the Tompkins Trust Building. The full legislature could potentially vote and approve the study a little later this month at their November 15th meeting.

The assessment would take about two months, and at the end of the period, the county will have an updated assessment of the buildings’ value for which they can use to decide on whether or not to go forward with the purchase. According to the county assessor’s website, the complex is currently assessed at $2 million.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.