ITHACA, N.Y. — As the old proverb goes, “{i}f at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” In this second year of New York State’s competition for $10 million Downtown Redevelopment Initiative (DRI) grants, Ithaca was passed over once again in favor of another Southern Tier community.

Last week, it was announced that the lucky recipient was Ithaca’s much smaller neighbor, Watkins Glen. Last year, Elmira was selected as the winner of state funds. This year’s competition was between Ithaca, Watkins, and Endicott located just outside Binghamton.

Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, was a little disappointed, to say the least. But when asked for this thoughts, he seemed to be taking the loss in stride. He had already collected his thoughts and prepared a statement when contacted.

“I was thinking about three different things that I want to communicate to people about the DRI grants and the grant process. The first thing is to congratulate Watkins Glen, I truly mean that, and it sounds like a job well done. I continue to believe that downtown revitalization, in Ithaca, Watkins Glen, and Elmira is really important, it’s vital for cities and villages. I appreciate the state putting this program together. If you want to keep people in the state, to grow and advance we need our communities to be strong and places they want to live.”

On his second topic point, Ferguson paused for a moment before finishing his thoughts. “Point number two is that…it’s disappointing to be a runner-up again. One of the things we can say is that the portfolio of projects we put together is significant, it’s major, and we need to do everything we can to put that agenda forward. We’ll continue to reach out for funding and apply to get these projects forward. There’s $188 million of investment in there, you don’t walk away from that type of opportunity. We’ll stand behind these projects and help push them forward, that kind of investment in your city is significant. Downtown Ithaca’s assessed valuation is $177 million, and while the two don’t necessarily equate, it gives you a sense of the magnitude we’re talking about, it’s a fundamental transformation, and that’s why it’s so important for us to pursue these projects and help make them happen.”

For so much investment, a glance at the city’s redevelopment application, currently withheld from publication at the state’s direction, does not have any earth-shattering projects. Almost half of the $188 million is towards Harold’s Square and City Centre, where the funds would have funded post-construction infrastructure and streetscape improvements. Some of the funds would have been leveraged to fund municipal works like new signage, gorge trails to downtown and rebuilding the Greet Street Garage. Another portion would have been allocated towards non-profit development projects like renovations to the State Theatre and the county’s new Heritage Center. The biggest single funding recipient would have been the proposed downtown conference center, $3.5 million towards the county’s $10 million cost.

Several smaller private projects, mostly upper floor renovations of older buildings into apartments or offices, would have received grants of $100k-$500k. Compared to last year, there aren’t any big, hidden surprises. When asked why the Journal said there were no changes from last year’s application, Ferguson laughed and said he didn’t know where they got that from (it appears they had mistaken last year’s application for this year’s).

So, now for the last point, and one that ties into perhaps something of an image issue – Ithaca being a victim of its own successes, versus the struggling economies of other Southern Tier communities. While job growth and investment has been comparatively strong, Ferguson expressed concern that it might give both locals and state officials the idea that Ithaca doesn’t really need the money, which he strongly refuted.

“One of the things we need to do, Ithaca and Tompkins County, is to help people better understand that projects in downtown Ithaca require supplemental support and assistance, and they don’t happen without it. I think that people from around the region and even around our own community, there are people who don’t necessarily think that downtown Ithaca, or {other parts of} Ithaca, or Tompkins need assistance, that things will happen without it.”

“Being in this job for as long as I’ve been, I can categorically say that’s not the case. Sometimes we have to provide help, and sometimes we have to wait a long time for these projects to come to fruition…the Marriott, Harold’s Square, they all take time and effort. We need to do a better job helping ourselves, our region, the things that happen are because we’re able to pull together that support and assistance. Otherwise we wait, or projects don’t get done. We need to make sure people better understand. There’s this sense of, Ithaca’s doing well, but we’ve seen that’s not necessarily the case. With help from other places, we can make projects happen, but we need that help.”

Downtown development does come with a unique set of challenges. Compared to a location in say, suburban Lansing, it’s logistically more complicated, land costs are more expensive, and the city’s review process tends to be more stringent, as are the opinions of neighbors and community members. This is the set of arguments used to justify the existence of the city’s development tax abatement program, CIITAP.

In the meanwhile, while missing out on DRI funding once again, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and the city of Ithaca are continuing to apply to other state and federal grants to try and bring some projects forward.

“We’re trying very hard to put together a conference center,” said Ferguson. “That’s not going to make cash flow on its own. It’s going to need help, it will need outside grants. The Heritage Center, the county has made a commitment, but at the end of the day, that will need grant support. We’ll work with them to make sure that happens. We’re looking at URI {Upstate Redevelopment Initiative} grant applications for downtown, we will be coming back in an effort to get funding for these projects.”

Brian Crandall

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