ITHACA, N.Y. — In a unanimous 5-0 vote last week, the Tompkins County Facilities and Infrastructure Committee voted to recommend the development of a new county Heritage Center on the Commons, and to send the decision to the full legislature for potential approval.
As previously covered, the Heritage Center is a plan to create a hub of tourism and history non-profits in the heart of Downtown Ithaca. The timing is driven in part by The History Center, which serves as the county’s historical society and museum. The nonprofit’s expenses are underwritten by the county, and their 25-year lease at 401 East State Street is set to expire next year. If renewed, their rent is expected to be doubled, an additional $90,000/year expense that would impact the county’s budget by extension.
Legislative approval would permit the county to spend up to $2 million for the Tompkins Trust Company Building on Bank Alley. The bank will be vacating the structure when its new downtown headquarters opens next year. The $2 million offer is $400,000 below the assessed value of the property. Renovations would add another $900,000 to the price tag.
Sources to cover the $2.9 million expense include some of the unbudgeted $1 million in payments to the county from the Lago and Tioga Downs casinos, and fundraising efforts by the History Center, which would set aside $450,000 towards the renovations. The project would be eligible for and apply to tourism grants from local and state authorities, which range from $100,000 for the local Strategic Tourism Planning Board, to $2.5 million requested from the state by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.
The fundraising and STPB grant are considered certain enough that they were worked into the voting resolution, bringing the county’s net expense down from $2.9 million to $2.35 million. For the record, STPB grants are not funded by the county, but through a hotel room tax paid by guests.
Along with grants and fundraising, the building’s operational costs would be paid for by renting out space in the building to tourism and history-focused non-profits. Several have already expressed a strong interest in being tenants in the center, including including the library of Historic Ithaca, Downtown Visitor Center, Community Arts Partnership, Wharton Studio Museum, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Discovery Trail offices, the Sustainability Center, and the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation.
When the finances are settled, the county expects to have any renovation expenses paid back in full, and hopes to be the owner of a stable, financially-appreciating asset that pays for its own operating costs, while functioning as a tourist attraction to downtown Ithaca. It should be noted that the project does not come without risk, as renovations of older buildings may have unexpected expenses, and there can be long-term operating and staff/leadership challenges.
However, in the eyes of the committee, the potential benefits outweigh the inherent risks. The full legislature is expected to vote on the building acquisition at their meeting on June 6th.