ITHACA, N.Y. — For sale: 6,508 square-feet of newer office space on 1.13 acres, with easy highway access, office suites and conference rooms, and just a stone’s throw from Cayuga Lake. The seller: the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. The organization announced plans to sell their property at 904 East Shore Drive earlier this week.
“I’m not anxious,” Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Tavares told the Ithaca Voice. “It’s a unique property, there aren’t properties like this on the market. It’s been a lot of work to get to this point, we’ve been planning this for several years. Our team and our Board (of Directors) is very supportive. It’s very exciting!”
The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, usually referred to as the Chamber in shorthand, is a voluntary non-profit organization that performs advocacy, networking, and business promotion on behalf of local enterprises. Local firms pay to be members and elect a Board of Directors to set policy for the Chamber. The Board hires staff exclusive to the organization to assist in managing it and running its affairs on behalf of the membership.
There are local Chambers of Commerce all over the country and the world. Specifically, in Tompkins, the chamber spearhead tourism promotion and marketing through the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), provide workforce training grants and programs and serves as an advocacy group to the county and municipal governments. The “Visit Ithaca” website, Relocation Guide for new residents, and Tompkins Connect professional networking group are all activities led by the Chamber, and it coordinated the business community’s response and management of the COVID crisis when the pandemic first erupted locally this past March.
Tavares understands that, given all the economic worries as a result of COVID, that it might not seem like a great time to be placing a commercial property on the market. “Do I wish we had done it a year ago? Possibly. We’ve been talking with experts about market conditions. There are still a lot of businesses interested in our community. The timing is because we want to avoid the holidays and winter, and we don’t know what the market will look like in 2021, so (listing it now) makes sense.”
So, let’s cut to the chase. No, the Chamber is not in dire financial straits. No, there aren’t mysterious issues with the building, which was built in 1989 and expanded/renovated in the early 2000s. It’s more like the concerns empty nesters have when they’re left with a big house after the kids move out. The space isn’t suitable for the Chamber’s needs anymore and isn’t used as much now that the Chamber has space elsewhere in the county, on the third floor of the Tompkins Center for History and Culture downtown, as well as its seasonal office over by Taughannock Falls. The visitor center at this property is also the least visited. With the costs of upkeep, an underused building of that size is a drain on the finances and time of what is a rather small non-profit.
“Managing this property takes a lot of human and cash resources, and this will allow us to reallocate our capital resources and be conservative with what we have. We’re going to be clear-sighted about this,” said Tavares.
According to a Q&A provided by the Chamber to members and local media, the organization will begin to consider offers in early to mid-October, a few weeks after this listing goes live. A sub-committee overseen by the Chamber’s chair will evaluate offers, send to the Chamber’s Executive Committee for further review, and if deemed an offer acceptable, a recommendation will be made to the Board of Directors to vote and enable the Chamber’s leadership to go ahead with the sale. It’s a multi-staged vetting of a potential sale offer, with an eye towards responsibility and transparency with Chamber members.
“The Chamber & CVB will be focusing on the quality of the offers, (and) how likely the transaction can be completed quickly, rather than the source of the offer, or the proposed use of the facility. The highest and best offer with the least contingencies will be selected,” said the formal statement from the Chamber to its members.
In a community where just about every big sale is scrutinized, Tavares acknowledges that some feathers may be ruffled if the potential buyer is looking at a redevelopment or some other use that Ithacans may not be in love with. It’s a trophy property, a high profile site at the northern entrance to the city of Ithaca with an unparalleled lakeshore view. She readily acknowledged that developers could be among the business people interested in the property, and the town has the parcel in a Planned Development Zone, not unlike the PUDs used for mixed-use projects in the city.
“I think we live in a unique community with many opinions on where development should go. Our job as sellers is to pursue the highest and best offer we can. If presented with similar offers we could consider intended use. But the buyers aren’t required to share that, and I don’t envision the Chamber getting involved in that process. The building and site could be a lot of things to a lot of people.”
Tavares wanted to stress that this will not impact the Chamber’s ability to carry out its function. The staff has generally been working remotely since the COVID outbreak began six months ago. The organization will retain its other spaces. No programs are being curtailed by the East Shore building’s sale. “I think our team is very agile and entrepreneurial. We’re well-positioned to work remotely. We’re still able to provide our high-quality services and programs to visitors and the community. We don’t know what space we’ll be moving to, but…we can still do our jobs and do them well.”
On that note, it should be noted that in the long-term, the Chamber is looking at a replacement space for the East Shore building, though they’re still figuring out what they want in a new space. “We’re already being reached out to by several folks in the community. We’re looking at a lot of different types of spaces and price points. Things could look different over the next twelve months, and we’re going to take that time to explore where we want to be, what our staff needs are, and how to be more accessible to stakeholders. There are a lot of really interesting locations available, and we’re going to leverage this opportunity,” she said.
In the meantime, the listing for the property will go live next week, now that members have had a chance to get the news early, and perhaps think if they might want it as a showpiece office for themselves. The list price will be for $1.395 million, a sizable though not unreasonable markup over the $890,000 value as assessed by Tompkins County. Jill Burlington of Warren Real Estate will be the Chamber’s seller agent.
While the building may be for sale, Tavare’s memories aren’t, and she says she’ll be leaving East Shore Drive with many fond remembrances. “I personally will miss our conference room, I’ll miss that view of the lake. I’ll definitely miss that gorgeous lake view from the deck. But who knows, maybe the next owner will let us visit!”