ITHACA, N.Y. — A lot can happen in two centuries. Tompkins County would know, having just celebrated its bicentennial last year.

The county has played big and small roles in many historic events. It has lost sons and daughters to war. It has faced widespread disease and social ills, and welcomed new technologies from streetcars to supercomputers. It was Hollywood before the studios moved to Hollywood. The first synthesizer was synthesized in Trumansburg. It helped open new doors for aviation. Tompkins County has cultivated governors, Nobel prize winners, NHL athletes and fashion designers. Many of history’s great minds grew up here, were educated here, made their homes here or took their last breath here.

The History Center (THC) is a non-profit that celebrates Tompkins County’s past, with an eye towards improving its future. It’s a source for genealogists, historians, teachers, archivists, and many of the old-timey photos that the Voice, Times and other news outlets share with intrigued readers. However, for being such a useful non-profit, it’s easy to miss, tucked away in the Gateway Center building at 401 East State Street. They have been renting the space on a 25-year lease.

That lease is running out at the end of this year. As time began to run short, and looking at a jump in rent when The History Center’s newly-hired Executive Director, Rod Howe, was tasked with exploring other options.

“The board said it would be time to consider a new location with better visibility. We heard of Tompkins Trust Company’s plan to do a new building on Seneca Street, and we knew the bank {alley location} was going to be vacated, so then THC board president Corey Earle and I met with their CEO Greg Hartz and said ‘wouldn’t it be great if this new evolving entity were to be located here at the bank,’ and he was very gracious and didn’t laugh us out of the room, it was a cordial meeting where the idea was planted.”

That idea for the new History Center was one that was accessible and useful to visitors and residents alike. But to make optimal use of the potential new location, the decision was made early on to identify opportunities to engage and recruit like-minded non-profits to join in the plans. It was also going to take a lot of money and effort to acquire and renovate the buildings from Tompkins Trust; for this, The History Center found a willing partner in county government.

“Certainly, Joe Mareane, the County Administrator, he was in touch because the county was interested in what our plans were, and eventually, all these strands came together that led to all the discussions and bringing together the partners to explore the possibilities. It was the right set of folks, the right timing,” said Howe.

“The county Tourism Program and Strategic Planning Board (STPB) have been a long time partner of The History Center, and as far back as six, seven years ago. STPB member Stu Stein Identified an opportunity to help the The History Center find a better location for access to visitors,” added outgoing Tompkins County Tourism Program Director Tom Knipe.

So began plans for the “Tompkins Center for History and Culture“, as named by the County Legislature. First came a feasibility study in 2016, and when everything checked out and a fair purchase offer was determined, the legislature voted to buy the buildings from Tompkins Financial last summer, during the county’s bicentennial celebration. For the record, the county’s cash came from casino payments; they pay the county part of their tax revenue since they compete with local entertainment venues.

It’s a bit hard to describe the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture (TCHC) off the cuff. It’s not just a visitor’s center, it’s not just a museum, or an art gellery or office space. But it will have all those things, with the museum, art gallery and visitor’s center on the ground level, with offices on the floors above. To steal a phrase from urban planners, it’s “mixed-use”.

“It’s really a jumping off point for learning about our community. We have a lot of really unique stories to share about our history and Tompkins County, from aviation, to film-making, higher education and the arts. We can help people learn about Ithaca’s outsized role in different industries and movements. There’ll be tours, a visitor’s center, the Community Arts Partnerships’ gallery space and information on everything from events to other attractions to trails they could visit. The Sustainability Center is involved as well, so there’s also a ‘look forward’ piece about Ithaca’s role in the future. There will be a museum experience, there will also be event space there, gallery nights, community events, I anticipate it being a vibrant space,” said Knipe.

In terms of location, it would be hard to find a more appropriate site. Not only will TCHC open its doors in the heart of Downtown Ithaca on the Commons, the buildings themselves are survivors of history – 106 North Tioga Street, the shorter brick building, was the county clerk’s office when it was built back in the early 1860s. It’s neighbor at 112 is relatively young, built in 1895. The history of the buildings will be narrated in the exhibit space.

While the location was excellent and the buildings more than suitable, the issue of cost was a big concern that needed to be addressed. One of the ways that the project makes itself financially feasible is that it’s a co-operative effort. Several history and culturally-focused non-profits will rent space in the building from the county (the county is seeking only a 2% annual return on investment, about enough to cover inflation). It’s not just The History Center, but also the Convention & Visitor Bureau’s Downtown Visitor Center, the Community Arts Partnership, Historic Ithaca, the Wharton Studio Museum, the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Discovery Trail, the Sustainability Center and the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation.

As for getting and keeping the $3.7 million TCHC up and running, initial funding comes from a number of sources – the state awarded TCHC two grants worth $1.365 million, potentially more state money may be made available with the help of local Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton,. A $1.75 million fundraising campaign, while still in its early stages, is underway (those looking to get involved can reach out here).

“It’s a broad set of partners coming together to fund us. We still have a ways to go, but we think we’re at the point where we need to be,” said Howe.

Now for a moment of devil’s advocate. Projected estimates have about 30,000 visitors coming through the doors during TCHC’s first year of operation. Granted, the Commons is a popular destination, but are people really going to be interested in checking out a museum and visitor’s center?

Howe is an enthusiastic yes. “It will illuminate the county. It’ll give a holistic overview of what a visitor might go out and explore. It may encourage visitors to extend their visits, or plan other visits. Even if we can’t host large conferences there, we might be able to host small regional events, and invite our partners to make and broaden connections. There will continue to be robust programming at this site, not just The History Center, but our partners as well. We’re expecting this place to be spectacular, with our partners, programs, and exhibits such as the Tommy plane. There’s plenty to still find out right in your own backyard, we want to foster making new connections among county residents.”

Knipe described the project as a complement to the greater experience, a synergy with other attractions. “We’re already seeing 7,000 visitors per year through the Downtown Visitor Center, The History Center is already seeing many visitors, the Commons sees many tens of thousands of visitors a year; these are already tourism draws. Bringing them together will amplify their impact. I don’t think it is necessary for 30,000 new visitors to come to Tompkins County just for the museum for the Tompkins Center to be seen as making a significant contribution to tourism,  although it will certainly attract many people directly, like early aviation or silent film buffs. We already have a million visitors coming to Tompkins County each year. Half are for the colleges; we want to engage those people while they’re here, so they come back more often and they stay longer. We’re serving some of those visitors who are coming here already and spend close to $200 million annually. It’s not necessarily thousands of people who wouldn’t come otherwise, but better serving the visitors that we have. It will make a very positive contribution to the overall experience of visiting Tompkins County, which is  not just our trails or museums or the Commons, it’s the whole experience.”

Renovations are expected to start this Spring, after Tompkins Trust Company moves into its new headquarters. Most of the work will be on the inside, converting the space over for new uses; for example, the basement will become a climate-controlled space for archives. STREAM Collaborative is the architect in charge, Tessellate Studio is designing the new exhibit area for historical and cultural artifacts, and Iron Design developed the logo, website and marketing material. The Tompkins Center for History and Culture is expected to open in early 2019.

“It’s an awesome example of Ithaca’s collaborative spirit, all these organizations coming together under one roof to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts,” said Knipe. He plans to stay involved with the Center through his new role as the city’s Deputy Director for Economic Development, which he started earlier this week.

“This was a big, bold move for The History Center, and it made sense to be collocated with other folks to create a destination,” Howe mused. “It’s so exciting to be at this point, the stars lined up to make this idea a reality.”

Brian Crandall

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