“Shift the traditional business models and be flexible with your vision.” This is the advice that Kaleb Hunkele, the owner of Standard Art Supply, would give to fellow young entrepreneurs thinking about setting up shop in downtown Ithaca. Hunkele founded the store two years ago at the age of 29; while the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) does not keep formal records of the number of under-30 business owners in the district, DIA Retail Director Kris Lewis says that it is a sizeable and upward-trending demographic. “Especially with the nationwide decline in family businesses – shops passed down from father to son to grandson, and so on – we see a lot more enterprising young people striking out and starting their own businesses. Downtown Ithaca has proven to be a fertile ground for many of these first-time business owners.”
A relative newcomer to the Ithaca area, Hunkele worked as a barista at Gimme! Coffee for a short time before deciding to start his own enterprise. As the only independent purveyor of art supplies in a city brimming with talent and appreciation for art, Hunkele’s store has been a very welcome addition to the downtown community. He selected the location – one block off the Ithaca Commons on East Seneca Street – for its easy walkability and bikeability, both for him and his customers. Standard Art Supply, which features a screen-printing studio and exhibition space, has also become a central gathering place for professional and aspiring artists to meet, network, and show their work.
When asked what else besides the location has contributed to his store’s success, Hunkele exclaims, “Great neighbors! Standard Art Supply wouldn’t be what we are today without the support of The Shop Café – the best people and coffee in town. The Shop Café happens to be owned and operated by another under-30 entrepreneur: Phoebe Aceto. A Tompkins County native, she reports, “I couldn’t imagine starting this business without my community, friends, and family.” Aceto, who opened the coffee shop and music venue in 2009 at the age of 26, characterizes the downtown business environment as more supportive than competitive, with many businesses including each other in special events and marketing initiatives. “People in this town understand what it’s like to work hard for something, and they will support you.”
Another highly popular café in downtown Ithaca, Waffle Frolic, was started in 2010 by two recent Ithaca College graduates, Alexis Randall and Julia Pergolini. Explains Randall, “We realized that this is the kind of place we wish had existed when we were in school – so what better place to set up shop?” Not yet 26, the proprietors have already hit on a winning business model: “Make sure the business is good for all seasons and is appealing to students and locals alike.” They are currently working to reinvest in the business with new equipment and furniture and are looking to host more special events such as small music acts. Adds Randall, “And one day, I’ll package and sell our Maple Hot Sauce – maybe before I reach 30.”
Says Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “Downtown Ithaca is a de facto business incubator. It remains a great place for new and fledgling entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses – be they retail, food and beverage, high-tech, service, or traditional office enterprises. Leading this entrepreneurial wave is a growing group of under-30 business owners who are bringing new energy, spirit, and bold thinking to business. Young entrepreneurs in downtown Ithaca love the urban environment, appreciate the dynamic marketplace, and take advantage of a wide range of space options. This is the place for young entrepreneurs to launch their dreams.”
Our Evolving Downtown: Charting Progress
August 7, 2013
As 2013 began, the Downtown Ithaca community found itself preparing for an intense period of construction activity. Ten new projects were cued up to move forward and their cumulative positive impact on the community would be immense. As we enter late summer, it is a good time to review where these projects stand, what progress has been achieved, and what remains to be accomplished.
Perhaps the most visible downtown project is the reconstruction of the Ithaca Commons. This project has been split into three phases to aid in moving it aggressively forward. Phase One was demolition and site clearance; Phase Two is utility replacement; and Phase Three is above ground construction. Phase One, completed ahead of schedule in early July, involved the removal of pavilions and planters and the creation of a construction zone surrounded by pedestrian walkways. The DIA organized a Commons mural project to enliven and beautify the construction zone. Nearly 300 individuals and groups participated, creating an unrivaled outdoor gallery of murals that has itself become an attraction.
Phase Two, the utility installation phase, began on schedule July 29. The contractor, Vacri Construction of Binghamton, is spending the first several weeks ordering custom piping and fittings needed for the work. They will tackle each utility one trench at a time, moving from west to east. Water, sewer, gas, storm water, and telecommunications will all be addressed. This phase will be completed prior to Thanksgiving, resulting in a quiet, construction free period for the holiday shopping season.
Phase Three will begin on or about March 1. A third contract will be let for the reconstruction activity— the new surface, the new pavilion, as well as new benches, trees, and art. This phase will be fun to watch… tangible, visible change will occur daily and weekly. Phase Three is scheduled to be completed by the end of July 2014, capped by a gala re-opening ceremony and event.
The Commons project is overseen daily by a dedicated team of individuals-a project manager, an outreach coordinator, and a project engineer. There is also a Steering Committee of key City and DIA staff who monitors project activity.
The Projects Underway
There are five private investment projects currently under construction in downtown: Seneca Way, Breckenridge Place, Argos Inn, the Shalimar building, and the Ithaca Journal building.
The Seneca Way project, located at the former Challenge Industries site at the base of State Street hill, is progressing well. Crews have already erected four of the planned six floors. All of the office space has been leased-to Warren Real Estate and the Park Foundation. This project, being developed by Binghamton based Newman Development, will provide 38 units of new market rate apartments.
Breckenridge Place, located at the corner of Cayuga and Seneca Streets at the former Women’s Community Building site, has built all six of its planned stories and is currently working on interior finishes. When completed, the building will offer 50 new units of affordable apartments.
Argos Inn, located on State Street next to Seneca Way, is poised to open its doors for business. The 13 room urban inn has meticulously renovated and restored the historic former Duncan Hines cake company headquarters building. Every room is different and unique. A ground floor pub has been created and will be open to the public for food and drinks. At this writing, staff is being hired and opening day is imminent.
The Shalimar building, located at 142-144 The Commons, is undergoing a complete make-over. John Snyder Architects has already occupied an attractive suite in the rear of the building and the storefront has been leased to an expanding Ithacards. The upper stories are being converted into 5 units of market rate apartments.
The Ithaca Journal building and complex has been purchased by Urban Core, LLC. Their first tenant was Life’s So Sweet Chocolates, who opened a family candy and sweets shop at 116 West Green Street. Brightworks Computers has moved into the main building and work is getting underway for the Press Bay Alley portion of the project, which will create new retail units along the former service alley.
There are several major projects waiting to move forward that we expected to be under construction by mid-year… the Marriott Hotel, the Lofts at Six Mile Creek, the Holiday Inn expansion and conference center, and Harold’s Square.
These are all large, urban projects and each developer is working hard to value engineer its project to bring projected costs better in line with bottom line budgets. While Downtown is a highly desirable place to build, it remains an expensive place to construct and projects tend to have financial gaps that need to be overcome. Land assembly is complicated and costly. Project staging is difficult and expensive. Construction is vertical, not the cheaper horizontal style. Soils are often filled, unstable or even in need of remediation. Building requirements tend to be more onerous than in locations at the edges of our community.
The Marriott Hotel project, a 159 room full service new hotel, has reached an agreement with the City over parking for the hotel. This negotiating process has slowed down the project. Once final approval is obtained, we believe this project will be ready for construction this year.
The Lofts at Six Mile Creek residential apartment project ran into unstable and unsatisfactory soils, resulting in a substantial increase in project costs. To accommodate these extra costs, the developers chose to re-design the project to incorporate more units (now about 45). Once these designs are approved by the City, this project is slated to move forward this fall.
The Harold’s Square mixed-use office, housing, and retail project passed a major milestone recently, with the passage of the new downtown zoning. The project just received a needed rear set back variance on August 6. The developer is actively finalizing financing and tenancy with the intent to launch construction later this fall.
The Holiday Inn expansion and conference center project is scheduled to get underway November 4. The project is seeking tax abatement from the City and County IDA, a process that will begin in August.
Without a doubt this is an exciting period for downtown and the Ithaca community. Rarely does such an alignment of outstanding projects come together for one community at one time. By year’s end, we expect all the major projects to be moving forward…. helping to transform Downtown Ithaca into a dynamic and exciting place for years to come.