For the past three seasons the Ithaca Commons construction project has represented a challenge for our entire community and especially for the four hundred plus stores, restaurants, and office businesses that call downtown Ithaca home.
We have been greatly encouraged, however, by a number of data points showing that, despite all these challenges, downtown Ithaca’s commercial core has remained strong and optimistic. The district’s retail vacancy rate was 3.9 percent in 2015, down from 9.1 percent before the start of construction in 2013 (adjusting for Harold’s Square space held off the market). Likewise, office vacancies have dropped to 3.8 percent in 2015 from 7.9 percent in 2013. Since the start of construction in April 2013, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance has held ribbon cuttings for over forty new and expanded businesses on and around the Commons. In that time, the total valuation of the district has increased by nearly $11 million.
Another very important factor in the vitality of our business district – and one that has too often been overlooked – is staying power. In our visitations this year, we have learned that several established merchants and entrepreneurs have recommitted to downtown by signing multi-year leases that will carry them through construction and into a newly revitalized future.
Madeline’s Restaurant has been one of Ithaca’s premiere upscale dining options for nearly twenty years. Recently, they signed on for another twenty years at their original location on the east end of the Commons. Owner Teri Miller says she is thrilled to be positioned at the gateway to the redesigned pedestrian mall and looks forward to the new wave of private development. “We have hotels rising up next to us as well as new residential opportunities nearby. We anticipate having more foot traffic than we ever did prior to construction. We are taking this opportunity to completely renovate and re-energize our business. Madeline’s will soon have a new look, new hours of operation, and a new vision.”
Office businesses have also taken bold steps to secure their place in this center of new activity. Last month, the Prybyl Farr Group at Morgan Stanley announced their plans for a ten-year lease extension and extensive interior renovations to their fifth-floor suite at 130 East Seneca Street, one block off the Commons. Says Rick Prybyl, Senior Vice President, “We thought long and hard about location: downtown, the Route 13 corridor, or Lansing. In the end, we felt it was most important to be committed to downtown. This is where so many community service leaders and professional people work day in and day out. We are doing our modest part to give the city a more certain future.”
While small, independently-owned retailers have arguably been the hardest-hit by the impediments and uncertainties of construction, many have remained dedicated to doing business in downtown. George Johann established Angry Mom Records in 2009 and, in the midst of demolition right outside his store at 115 The Commons, renewed his lease for five years. Says Johann, who is also a new father, “I’ve always loved Ithaca. The music scene here is amazing and I was excited to become a part of it. Even though the construction project has been a bit of a mess, the Commons represents everything that’s great about this town. It’s the opposite of the sprawl on Route 13 and one of the things that drew me to this town in the first place.”
Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, praises these and other businesses for their perseverance and vision. “There are many metrics for judging the success of a downtown commercial district. One of the most important is the willingness of existing businesses to remain and grow. This is a sure sign of a strong, resurgent downtown economy. Each of these businesses is demonstrating confidence and commitment to the future of our vital urban core and we appreciate their investment in their community.”