ITHACA, N.Y. — Let’s say you want to host a medium-sized convention or professional gathering in Ithaca. What are your options? If you’re associated with Cornell or Ithaca College, they have function spaces for perhaps one or two hundred visitors. The hotels also have a few meeting rooms for small gatherings. But for any gathering with more than a few hundred attendees? You’re heading to Binghamton, Rochester or Syracuse.
Ithaca lacks a place to host medium-sized functions (250-500 attendees). This creates some drawbacks in the local business community. For example, the hotels do a burgeoning business on weekends and during the summer tourism season, but the cold half of the year leaves hoteliers with a lot of empty hotel rooms, especially during the week. Restaurants, shops, and other local tourism-based businesses are keenly aware of Ithaca’s highly seasonal market.
However, a conference center is no small task. They’re dependent on outside and local interest, often operate in a deficit, and when the Downtown Ithaca Alliance commissioned a feasibility study in 2003, it was found that the local market wasn’t enough to sustain a conference center; it would have been a big, impractical financial weight on the backs of taxpayers.
Still, the idea’s been floated again in the past few years, most recently as part of the Hotel Ithaca renovations. Hart Hotels held off on the conference center in part because there wasn’t a demonstrated need that would indicate success. So the interest is there, but no one’s been 100% sure the market is.
To figure out what’s changed in the past fifteen years, the non-profit Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) commissioned a study from Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, which specializes in conference and convention center feasibility studies. The results of the Ithaca study were shared at a DIA public meeting earlier this week.
Let’s start there. According to Hunden’s analysis, over the past 15 years, Ithaca’s hospitality and leisure market has grown steadily (Exhibit A, the “Hotel Boom”). The restaurant scene has grown, there’s a greater interest in hosting events in walkable downtowns, the economy overall has grown, and the number of visitors is way up. All of that bodes well for the conference center concept – more places for conference-goers to stay, dine out, and visit while they’re in town. Getting to Ithaca is still a pain, but local and regional conferences, say from Philadelphia to New England, aren’t opposed to a small airport or day’s drive.
In many strategic analyses, they used what’s called a “SWOT” matrix – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. A strength for Ithaca is its role as a well-known college town with beautiful scenery. A weakness is it’s “centrally isolated” location. Opportunities include state association meetings or big college-affiliated wedding receptions, and threats include possibilities like a big economic downturn.
So, let’s look at the original question – can Ithaca support a conference center? The short answer is yes. The long answer has some caveats and nuances.
Hunden, in their analysis, suggested a 33,000 SF facility with a 10,000 SF grand ballroom and 4,800 SF of meeting rooms that can be divvied up as needed, hosting 600-900 depending on the type of event. It’s assumed that if downtown, most of these guests will be using the garages and staying at the hotels, and since conferences are mid-week, there wouldn’t be too much overlap with the weekend tourists. The budget for such a building is $8-$16 million, depending on amenities and hard/soft construction costs.
Ownership gets a little complicated. It would probably be publicly-owned like the airport, with either a non-profit board running it, or a city or county agency. Funding for construction and operation would be a mix of private and public funds, anywhere from hotel agreements to grants and possibly new taxes.
The thing is, the facility would likely operate at a net loss, and most private businesses don’t really want to run something with an operating loss. The facility would likely be rented about half the time – hotels would be expensive and hard to get in the summer, and inclement weather would pose a risk during the heart of winter. But staff still need to be paid, and proper building maintenance doesn’t take days off. The annual loss would level off around $100,000/year.
The trade-off comes in the form of an influx of money from visitors attending these conferences and big weddings. New consumer spending from 41,000+ annual visitors would generate $148 million over 20 years (using 20 years as a statistic allows for a 4-5 years for the center become a known quantity and take off the training wheels), $5.5 million in taxes, and about 105 jobs stemming from building operation and the increased business.
So at a glance, it looks like a net positive even with the operating loss, but it’s dependent on a good economy and Ithaca remaining competitive to its regional peers. Ithaca might be prettier, but Binghamton is easier to get to.
That’s the gist of it – it could work, but like any venture, it has some risks involved, and getting the conference center sited and funded would be task. Any movement towards an Ithaca or Tompkins County Conference Center would be a few years out. But at least now the city and county knows there’s a good chance their investment would pay off.