ITHACA, N.Y. — On a snowy Saturday afternoon at Buffalo Street Books, an older crowd of a few dozen people gathered around to hear the reflections of one of Ithaca’s most prominent businessmen of the last half-century, developer Mack Travis.

Travis, 76, settled into a stuffed armchair as the Downtown Ithaca Alliance’s Gary Ferguson took a seat beside him and introduced the pair to the audience. Rather than a long-winded speech, the idea was to conduct an interview, based largely off of Mack Travis’s recent book, “Shaping a City: Ithaca, New York, a Developer’s Perspective,” but also to give Travis a chance to reflect on his achievements, setbacks and experiences in the city of gorges.

It wouldn’t be fair to just call Travis a developer. Increasingly, Ithaca’s developers are detached from the community; based elsewhere, but seeing some local profit opportunity by tapping into the student market, or some housing development in Lansing, or whatever they’re used to doing that helps them build up their bottom lines.

Travis, however, comes from a different time. Ithaca was not desirable when he started his business in 1977, after washing out of acting in New York and taking a teaching position at Ithaca College. Ithaca was his new stage, albeit a shabby one.

The city’s downtown was emptying out in favor of Route 13 and the brand new mall in Lansing. Much of the city’s housing was in terrible shape, the result of disinvestment and an exodus from the urban core to the latest and greatest suburban cul-de-sacs. Urban renewal had reduced many of the city’s historic structures to rubble. City leaders made a desperate effort to keep businesses downtown, first with new parking garages, then with the closing of State Street for what would become Ithaca Commons. Collegetown was considered a slum.

New to the business, Travis started off small; Ithaca Rentals and Renovations first focused on existing homes, starting with a large one-family Victorian on North Aurora that he converted into a two-family home for a rental unit and his family’s residence. From there, he grew as his income allowed and as opportunities came up. In addition to a number of older homes, Travis, with his father coming on as a partner, developed Ravenwood on Lake Street in 1981, built the curved and somewhat controversial Eddygate Building in Collegetown in 1987, and performed a gut renovation of 407 College Avenue, which he would later redevelop after a restaurant fire destroyed the building in 1998. After student housing came big downtown renovations, with Westminster hall in 1989, and the Cayuga Apartments in 1990.

Today, the firm lives on through his son Frost and son-in-law Chris Hyde, as Travis Hyde Properties.

Travis’s legacy, however, is not just defined by the buildings he built. Buildings contribute to the physical plant of the community, but they don’t define its urban fabric, the cultural themes and details that make Ithaca the community that it is. Travis served on a number of boards in the area, including McGraw House, Kendal at Ithaca and Cayuga Medical Center. But he said his strongest interest was in promoting and enlivening Downtown Ithaca. In 1994, after the Center Ithaca project failed, it was Travis who came in and brought it back to life, one of the few successes in an era of high vacancy and public disinterest in Ithaca’s downtown core.

It was that experience, as well as a reputation for thoughtfully working with the city and neighbors in crafting his projects, that led a push in 1994 from Mayor Ben Nichols and local businessmen to get him to take charge of a proposal, a Business Improvement District (BID).

The concept was simple enough; a slightly higher assessment (effectively, a tax) downtown to fund downtown-focused initiatives and traffic generators, anything from fixing potholes to paying for additional police patrols, and from housing studies to festivals. The first BID proposal was large, 144 blocks from Stewart Avenue to Meadow Street, and Court Street to Clinton Street; it needed 75 percent of the vote, and failed at the ballot box (with 52 percent). Two years later, a much smaller BID was proposed, focusing on the 22 blocks just in Ithaca’s core. That version passed and came into being in 1997.

“We hired an executive director, we had a vision of what we wanted to do. We wanted to recruit retail, we had 20 percent vacancy on the Commons, and Carol (his wife) and I owned Center Ithaca then. All this was self-interest in a sense, but it happened to dovetail nicely with community interests,” said Travis.

The first business recruited, after an open house, was the Lost Dog Cafe at 106 South Cayuga Street. The BID hasn’t been without its ups and downs, often dealing with threats and risks of businesses moving or closing in Downtown Ithaca, as well as broader economic concerns.  When a suburban property can offer lower taxes, newer commercial space or acres of parking just outside the front door, it can be hard to compete.

After the original director departed for law school, the BID’s Board of Trustees brought in Gary Ferguson to serve in the role, and Ferguson is still Downtown Ithaca’s biggest advocate 20 years later.

“None of us knew what we were doing, what we were trying to do,” Travis said. “Gary came to town, he had done the BID in Dayton, Ohio, he had won the national award for the best retail recruitment program in the county … Gary helped us put together a strategic plan for 2010, this was 2000 at this point. The feasibility study, by Ken Danter, showed we could add 80 apartments a year downtown, 150,000 square feet of retail space, 75,000 square feet of office space. We couldn’t believe it.”

It may have been hard to believe, but it encouraged business owners and developers to believe that downtown was worth the effort. It was this original Danter study that built the business case for Downtown Ithaca’s major reinvestment in the early 2000s, including Travis’s Gateway Center and Gateway Commons, the Seneca Place mixed-use building, and the redevelopment of parking spaces into two apartment buildings, retail space and a new parking garage.

With encouragement from the BID, the county and city did their part to promote downtown Ithaca as well, first with the new library to generate traffic, and then the development of downtown tax abatements, which helped make the financial numbers work on what was still seen a risky neighborhood.

This first wave of development brought over $150 million in new investment into Downtown Ithaca, Travis stated. Even more would come to be with the second wave underway now, with an increasing interest from those unfamiliar with the city’s quirks (for better or worse).

According to Travis, it was Ferguson who demonstrated to him what makes a downtown work.

“Arts, dining and entertainment are the heart of downtown revitalization,” Travis said. “Density is key, but arts, dining and entertainment are the drivers.”

As fortune would have it, Ithaca’s city officials, staff and businessmen were ahead of the curve with their encouragement for downtown development, and the BID was a representation of that. As other communities have only just begun to see the potential in their urban centers, Ithaca’s core has strengthened, with revitalized historic structures and new ones to accommodate the growing community. The Commons was no longer an act of desperation, or a boondoggle; as the New York Times put it, Ithaca remade the traditional town square, and became a darling of Best Places to Live lists.

This has not been without its issues, and Travis acknowledged as such when asked by an audience member complained about the ugliness of the City Centre building and other new projects. Some new builds could use refinement, and the city now has a Design Review Board and guidelines in place. Housing affordability has increasingly become an issue, something that Ithaca and Tompkins County are making a concerted effort to address. Lastly, it’s a changing face for a venerable college town, and change always seems to happen with some worry and hesitation. In the meanwhile, the BID continues, now working on its 2030 Strategic Plan, and working with developers and business owners to keep downtown active and inviting.

For Mack Travis, although acting may not have worked out, he helped direct the limelight onto Downtown Ithaca, casting it into the major role it plays today.

“In New York, I had written in crayon on our wall, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’, and that’s sorta been the approach I’ve taken. I think creating some nothing, and having the courage, that we all have somewhere down in us…to strike out and to do what your greatest challenge, is what I’ve done,” Travis said.

Brian Crandall

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