ITHACA, N.Y. –– If Leslyn McBean-Clairborne has her way, the gymnasium of the former Immaculate Conception School at 315 West Court Street will be filled with happy shouts and squeaking of sneakers once again.

While most of the greater Ithaca/Tompkins community knows McBean-Clairborne better for her role as a county legislator for District 1 in the City of Ithaca, she’s also the Director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), a city-administered social services center that provides multicultural, educational and recreational programs geared toward positive social and individual development.

These program offerings range from activities for kids, teenagers and even senior citizens. GIAC’s goals are to improve the local quality of life, advocate for the rights and needs of underrepresented and serviced populations in the city, and provide engagement and training programs for at-risk youth and adults. (Full disclosure, McBean-Clairborne is also the wife of Ithaca Voice Board of Directors Member J.R. Clairborne).

From the archives: a celebration of Black History Month at GIAC. (Photo courtesy of GIAC)

Being the Director of GIAC comes with its challenges and opportunities. For an example of the former, consider the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic. All physical programs were put on pause and the building has been closed to the public since July as a safety precaution, substituting online services where possible, and instituting new programs like senior grocery delivery as well as a food pantry.

However, this has come at a cost, and the city struggled to close the budget gap created by COVID last spring. Many staff were laid off or saw reduced hours. Teen employment and junior sports programs were eliminated, and weekday after-school programs were reduced from more than 115 students daily to just 44 to ensure social distancing. 2020 was by any regard a very difficult year for GIAC.

“It’s been hard. But the beauty about this place is the people that work here. We pride ourselves on the GIAC family. A lot of researchers out there say ‘co-workers should not say that you’re family,’ but at GIAC we do, we defy that. We have been able to lean on each other for support, to breathe and process, and to strategize,” said McBean-Clairborne.

She continued, adding that strategizing is a particular strong suit of resilient GIAC employees.

“We plan ahead. If we know something coming, or even if it hits us in the moment, we have plan A, B, C, D, and sometimes E in place, depending on what scenario comes at us, we can roll out the appropriate plan and keep moving. When the pandemic hit last year, most of our staff were furloughed. Programs were on pause, we shut down. Coming into this building, it was heartbreaking. Not ever have we shut down and not be available to the public. It was strange to us.”

McBean Clairborne mentioned examples of how GIAC was able to cobble together what they could to make the pandemic slightly more bearable in its first year. She mentioned the opening of GIAC’s Alex Haley pool last summer for pop-up programs, which was made possible with funds through the Park Foundation and a local donor; and staff-designed all-day virtual programming and remote learning assistance.

For what it’s worth, 2021 is shaping up to be a better year. For one thing, funds from the federal American Rescue Act COVID-19 relief bill will help fill the municipal budget gap created by the pandemic. For two, there are opportunities for GIAC to expand its programming as we slowly if optimistically move towards a more normal state of affairs as COVID-19 is reined in.

“Things are looking good. We still continue to manage some all-day programming and at the same time balance that out with after-school programming and academic support, we’re providing childcare so caregivers can go to work. We enhanced our internet system, with so many children getting online, we didn’t want to overwhelm the city’s system, and we were able to get grant money and invest in that. It’s an equity issue. I’m not going to lie, there’s been a little bit of staff burnout. It’s been a lot. The beauty of the staff is that we hang in there, the people we serve, need us, and we as staff take care of each other. It’s nothing new for us, but COVID added that extra layer of stress. We’re plugging along, we’re still here, but the biggest challenge right now is space for our teens and their programs and activities,” McBean-Clairborne said.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity, physically speaking, is the gym of the former Immaculate Conception School (ICS). The school closed four years ago, and the Catholic Diocese of Rochester sold it through a competitive request for bids to Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, which is redeveloping the school into low-moderate income residences and office space for social services non-profits. However, the large, windowless gymnasium would have been tough to reuse, and were it not for the fact that GIAC is right next door the the east, it likely would have met its fate with the wrecking ball.

With any luck, that fate will be avoided for the foreseeable future. INHS has removed the enclosed hallway leading to the gym from the former school, and the gym has been subdivided from the former school’s lot and sold to the city. From there is where GIAC and its plans come into play.

“We can only accommodate so many children, we offer programming four days a week for elementary age from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM. Wednesday is our deep clean day, and our teens come in on Wednesdays from noon to around five for some programming for them. But elementary age has taken up all the space and we have no room for teens, and that hurts,” said McBean-Clairborne.

“When I first heard about the gym space, if your readers could see this big smile on my face,” says McBean-Clairborne with an enormous grin.

As she explained, the idea for the gym came up through the GIAC Navigators athletic program, which was doing work with Ithaca College and gave the kids an opportunity to learn about film production courtesy of an Ithaca College professor. The professor’s class would come down and the kids learned how to do interviews and make videos. On one of those children’s practice interviews was McBean-Clairborne talking about GIAC’s space issues, and the video clip made it into a community screening about the Navigators program at Cinemapolis. A parent at Immaculate Conception School saw the screening, texted McBean-Clairborne, and told her about the school’s imminent closing, and McBean-Clairborne reached out to the city attorney, ICS, and local officials.

So in this very roundabout, happenstance way, that’s how the idea of GIAC procuring the ICS gym first came up. The idea of vying for the whole school complex was considered “for a fleeting moment”, but given the costs, it was tricky. INHS’s winning bid worked out, and McBean-Clairborne described them as a “stellar partner” for their assistance in making it happen.

With local architecture firm STREAM Collaborative providing pro bono design services as well as pro bono work from Taitem Engineering, J. C. Lowery and Welliver, plans focus on creating space for GIAC’s Teen Program operation, recreational programs like basketball and boxing, and program space for other GIAC functions as desired. Renovations entail removing the old mechanical gym partition system (if you ever wondered as a kid if people became trapped by those, the answer is a tragic yes), replacing the bleachers, refinishing the hardwood basketball court and replacing the backboards, upgraded locker rooms and a concessions area, replacing doors, and retractable blinds on the skylights so movies can be shown inside during the day. The court and building will also be extended 12 feet to the east so that it becomes official basketball regulation length.

More general to the building are planned utility upgrades to Green Building Policy standards, ADA compliance, a new entrance on the west side, ADA-accessible second-floor office space, reconfigured storage rooms to host a screen printing shop and small animation studio, and new insulation within the building frame. As you might imagine, these very thorough fixes and upgrades come with a sizable price tag –– the total project budget, which includes hard construction costs, asbestos removal, furnishings and soft costs (legal paperwork, permits) is $2,711,580. McBean-Clairborne says the initial $1.3 million in funds had been met and they were ready, but then COVID happened.

“Now that we’re in COVID recovery we were able to get new estimates, but the estimates came in at $3.7 million. I just…” McBean-Clairborne let out a mimicked scream of horror. “The basic plan is $2.7 million, and an expansion and improvements we would need to do came in a little bit more. I said, okay, back to the drawing board, we’ve got to relaunch our capital campaign, tell the community it’s not our fault…the construction costs, warehousing and materials costs have gone up dramatically.”

As of March, about $1,187,500 of funding had been secured, thanks to two sets of grants from the state with former Assemblywoman Lifton’s help, and GIAC’s own fundraising campaign. The $2 million fundraising campaign, which also seek to provide capital funds for other GIAC priorities, is 40% towards it goal. GIAC had sought $400,000 from the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency to help pay for the project, and while the IURA likes the project, existing federal funds are still limited (the annual IURA grant awards are separate from the American Rescue Act, for which the funds have yet to be allotted on a municipal level), and the intended award was capped at $100,000. McBean-Clairborne says that they’ll continue to fundraise and she’s actively working on applications for multiple local, state and federal grants until the funding goals for the renovation have been met, and is checking to see if American Rescue Act funds will be available for the effort.

From the archives: Members of GIAC come out to support alumna EJ Onah after her 2019 victory at the Pan American Games. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Obviously $2.7 million dollars is a pretty hefty chunk of change. But McBean-Clairborne stresses that it’s worth it. For one, the programming serves a lot of lower-moderate income households within the city of Ithaca –– about 80 percent of participants in programs come from homes where family income is 80 percent or less than the area median income. Many of the senior citizens rely on fixed incomes, and the gym may serve the greater community as a large-group neighborhood forum space. GIAC also makes a concerted effort to employ local teens or adults and assist in jobs training programs (the Hospitality Employment Training Program, for example) so that local residents can gain experience and build their professional resumes. Plus, there’s hope a renovated gym would provide a boost for sports tourism. If they host regional basketball tournaments, for example, perhaps some of those visitors from Groton or Watkins Glen or Owego stick around town for a bite to eat or some shopping before they head home.

There’s reason to be optimistic –– this isn’t the first time GIAC’s had to compete for grants and fundraise. That’s how they were able to do a matching grant for $4 million for a gut renovation of their facility back in 2009, and how they were able to replace their community wading pool more recently. When the time comes that all the funding is secured, city review will be minor, as public resource projects (public facilities and government services) are exempt from most environmental review. The renovation would take about six months once they begin work –– should one feel inclined to make that happen sooner rather than later, the donation webpage for the capital campaign is here. In the meanwhile, there will be much work to do in design and fundraising, in the hopes they can break ground sometime soon.

“I am so excited, the staff are excited. We got a grant from the IURA, the Board of Directors for GIAC raised the rest of the money to purchase it, we hold the deed and it’s now time for renovation. Pretty much all of the funds from our current capital campaign are for the renovation. We’re going to raise this money and let the community have ownership in (the gym). We’ve been committed as a staff that when we break ground, we want it to be completed, we don’t want it to sit half-done and be an eyesore,” said McBean-Clairborne.

McBean-Clairborne continued, adding that every donation counts, no matter the size.

“Some people can give $10,000, some people can give $1. We will take it all, they will have equal ownership in this project,” she said. “It’s not for me, I’m not going to live there…well maybe, I may forget to go home as I work almost 24/7, but it’ll be for the community. I wish we had it in the middle of COVID. The number of children we could not accommodate, we would have been able to accommodate them, we would have a space for our teens. When the weather got nice, we had 20, 25 teens hovering outside GIAC, and I felt so bad because I couldn’t let them in. But this is where they come and this is where they feel good, being here. We need this and we’re working for it, writing grants, asking for donations.”

The conversation with McBean-Clairborne ended with her thanking GIAC’s partners in making this dream a reality.

“We are so fortunate. People have been generous, and the GIAC family is so thankful for the time donated by STREAM, Taitem Engineering, J. C. Lowery and Welliver, they’ve donated so much time and work. The city engineers, Tim Logue and Brooks Hendricks, they’re just amazing, they helped with no hesitation…this project is more than just GIAC,” she said. “It’s a community project. It’s going to serve this community in so many ways.”

Brian Crandall

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