ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s a bit like cheering on the Detroit Lions. You hope they do well, you support them in their efforts, but you’re more than aware the track record isn’t so good. Regardless, they keep trying, and you have to give them credit for that.

The city of Ithaca is once again preparing an application to the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council as part of New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Ithaca’s record is 0-5; five attempts, with nothing to show for it apart from some PDFs with nice graphics. Alas, what’s a college town if they don’t give it the old college try?

The city of Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency’s Neighborhood Investment Committee had a look at the application at their meeting earlier this month. According to state press releases, the application is likely already filed with the state, as submissions were due on September 23rd.

The Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI, is a $10 million grant for downtown improvements from the state. Typically, one grant is awarded in each of the state’s regions, except that 2021 round, which awarded an optional second grant in some areas after skipping the competition in 2020 due to the pandemic. Southern Tier winners include Elmira (2016), Watkins Glen (2017), Owego (2018), Hornell (2019), Endicott (2021) and Norwich (2021).

The application, titled “Cultivating Community: Bringing Inclusive Prosperity and Connectivity to Downtown Ithaca,” is less grandiose than some of the applications in previous years. It’s the work of about thirty business, government and non-profit community members who have been working on the proposal since last spring.

“To some, Ithaca seems like a place with little need and boundless opportunity. While we appreciate the positivity, we also know that most people don’t really know “Ithaca,” states the proposal summary.

“In this application, we have attempted to describe and illustrate the real and challenging needs and issues that confront the majority of our downtown. More than half of the land area of our downtown is not what people expect to see. It is not pedestrian-friendly, not attractive, not a magnet for growth and development, and not equitable in a way we all would like it to be. As a gateway and as a connection with our west side communities, it is lacking in basic infrastructure and community/
economic development projects. This area is historically underserved and we as a community want to redress this situation.”

As the more recently applications have done, the focus area is a “1”-shaped swath of the city from Downtown, along the State Street Corridor and into the West End. The primary goals are infrastructure and programmatic improvements to better connect the West End and Downtown, encourage entrepreneurship by community members, and empower underserved members of urban Ithaca, particularly lower-income households in or around the West End.

More specifically, plans and programs that would be seeded with the $10 million grant include roadwork and sidewalk improvements along State/Martin Luther King Jr. Street, signage and street improvements to Route 13 at the intersections of Fulton and Meadow Streets, and renovations to DeWitt Park.

On the economic side, there’s grant dollars requested for the shared-use commercial kitchen, a food hall in Center Ithaca, a small-scale manufacturing program and an economic incubator for underprivileged minority groups. Money would also be allocated to support a new intercity bus hub, and a new air conditioning system for the State Theatre. A Youth Enrichment Center is proposed for the Masonic Temple, and Ithaca College’s Physician Assistant program would operate a walk-in health clinic on the Commons in the Rothschild Building.

510 West State/MLK Jr. Street.

Compared to some previous applications, they’re aren’t too many real estate projects in this application; the only explicitly stated item is the affordable housing plan approved for 510 West State/MLK Jr. Street. Left vague in the submission is a proposal to help seed funding for a $40 million mixed-use project with 60 housing units and some job-creating component, location unknown.

According to the application, the grant money, combined with $6.5 million in other local grant dollars, would leverage $69 million if private investment, about 92 new jobs in the swath of Ithaca targeted, and over 100 new housing units.

“This DRI application is a coordinated, community-based effort to […] bring basic, catalytic infrastructure to an area that desperately needs it; provide housing opportunities for all, enabling more people of all incomes to live in the
center of our city, rather than commute from an hour or more away; create economic opportunity for all of our residents through economic development projects targeted to key demographics; and creating desired and badly needed community projects that provide the crucial amenities that this area now lacks,” summarized the application.

With the submission in the hands of the Southern Tier REDC and state economic officials, it’s a waiting game at this point to see if this is finally Ithaca’s lucky year. Winners in each of the ten regions will be announced in early December.

Brian Crandall

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