ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca has become a mainstay on the silver medal podium of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, coming up close-but-empty several times during the annual statewide competition in which municipalities vie for $10 million to invigorate its economic cores. 

Since the competition was started by then–Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Ithaca has applied with a wide variety of ideas forming the basis each year, from safe injection sites to extending the Commons a block westward to public downtown WiFi and more (even without the monetary win, that last one was implemented earlier this year). 

Initial presentations this year were led by Ithaca’s Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, Planning Director Lisa Nicholas, Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) Executive Director Gary Ferguson and Unbroken Promise Initiative (UPI) founder Jordan Clemons, before the crowd of about 40 attendees who broke into groups to discuss specific ideas and suggestions and run by the presenters and DIA staff. 

Nicholas outlined the boundaries of the grant — an important part of the application, since one of the main criteria is for the area to be walkable — which is from a block east of the Commons, down a two-block wide section of the State Street corridor all the way to include the Inlet and a small part of the West End, essentially the waterfront trail area.

As outlined by Ferguson, the types of projects meant to be included are as follows: “Transform downtown, catalysts for growth, attract businesses, residents and visitors, shovel ready within two years, one-time projects, ongoing programs not included.”

“That’s the idea behind it, the goal of Gov. Cuomo when he put this together and now Gov. Hochul, is that communities of New York State really needed a boost to make their urban cores downtown more livable, more economically viable and more sustainable,” Ferguson said. “It falls to the community to define your downtown, your boundaries.”

To name some specifics, albeit all hypothetical, Ferguson said initial conversations about the grant application have named West State Street improvements, a new bus depot, community kitchen projects, a brick and mortar Multicultural Community Center, a childcare facility, improvements to DeWitt Park, signage for Rt. 13 to improve safety and navigability, Visum 500 Block housing and a retail incubator focused on fostering BIPOC-owned businesses. 

A trip down West State Street away from the Commons can show some of the reasons Ferguson and city officials want the grant to focus there. Parts of it are relatively deserted by businesses, and while some development has taken hold (which could have its own gentrification risks), there hasn’t been nearly the boom that other segments of the city have seen. 

“That’s really one of the most crucial parts of our urban core,” Ferguson said, referring to the waterfront but acknowledging that locations closer to the Commons have seen far more rampant growth than places just a few blocks to the west down State Street. “It’s a palette waiting to be created.”

Earnestly, $10 million is not nearly enough to transform a downtown. But it’s enough investment to leverage for further interest and funding, Ferguson said. 

“Our best shot at winning and bringing resources back to our community is to build an inclusive foundation,” Clemons said during his presentation. Clemons, both individually and through UPI, has often lamented the lack of development focus in the western portion of Ithaca — it was one of the primary factors in founding UPI. “Your input is important and valuable. I believe in people, and I believe in you all.” 

While the state has said that it does not want community need to be a major consideration in the awards, the Southern Tier regional decision-makers have decided that “need” is going to be their largest priority in deciding who will win the $10 million. 

“Maybe we’re not telling the story well enough, because there is need,” Ferguson said. The general thought about why Ithaca has been unsuccessful in all of its attempts in previous years is that other cities or areas that aren’t as economically healthy as Ithaca, bolstered by its higher education institutions, etc. 

“They’ve often been great at telling the side of need,” Clemons said, referring to the previous winners. “When we come off as ‘Ithaca is gorges,’ it looks like we’re expanding on our already-developed stuff and not revitalizing. Going westward, where a lot of investment hasn’t already happened, makes sense.” 

Discussion among the groups was vast and varied. Obviously, housing dominated parts of the conversation, with affordability being one of the primary concerns. It was suggested at some point that existing housing along the State Street corridor that is actually affordable currently could use investment to be improved, since some of it is not properly maintained. 

One attendee, Fidel, said that those present should read the well-regarded book “Megatrends” by John Naisbitt to inform their suggestions and thinking about the greater vision for Ithaca going forward. 

One group also discussed emergency housing for youth and women and children, suggested by attendee and activist Yasmin Rashid, something separate from the St. John’s Community Shelter since it faces consistent space and capacity concerns. A size suggestion was 100 children’s beds and 50 adolescent beds, in the case of a youth shelter, and that there should be a more accessible path from homeless shelters to career opportunities. 

Another commenter, Melisa, suggested that a gallery or artspace could be included in a grant application as well, to foster “community ownership” of new spaces. There was some talk as well about tweaking the aforementioned incubator idea to make it more art-focused, something that could foster public art development.

The groups were cognizant of not pricing existing residents out of the area of the grant, though that is always a risk. Versatility was emphasized, trying to utilize the space that is available in the most efficient way. 

There was more talk about people being hesitant to come downtown, seemingly a recent phenomenon, though this particular discussion was focused on there being a lack of attractive entertainment options downtown as opposed to any oft-cited crime concerns. 

But hanging over the entire discussion was one that a grant, no matter how large, can’t fix. One attendee noted that at his current job, his bosses make a great deal more money than he does, yet live fairly close to him near downtown Ithaca. But the financial barriers that exist between him and their neighborhoods make it difficult to envision a viable future there. 

“It would take me 20 years to move six blocks up,” he said.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com