2020 Economic Summit highlights county needs, growth

Strategies for future center around collaboration

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This year’s Economic Summit was all about change – how much progress the county has made and how much work is yet to be done – centered around issues important to the community like housing, tourism, jobs and development.

The 2020 Economic Summit, hosted by the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, was notably different from its predecessor with the addition of four breakout sessions: tourism and visitor profile, housing and development, workforce development and attraction, and Ithaca Green New Deal and Green Building Policy. On top of that, New York Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul came to present the governor’s state budget.

The summit’s main luncheon featured presentations by Jennifer Tavares, president of the Chamber, Heather McDaniel, president of Tompkins County Area Development,  and keynote speaker Russell S. Weaver, an economic geographer and senior extension associate in the Cornell University ILR Buffalo Co-Lab.

“Ithaca and Tompkins County have had another exciting year of progress in several key areas, some of which have been longtime community priorities,” Tavares said. “We want to explore some of those areas more deeply, celebrate our shared successes and also talk about our unique challenges.”

To help summarize the big themes of the event, Tompkins Weekly is breaking things down by category. Overall, presenters highlighted a year of progress while outlining some key areas of improvement for the year ahead.

Tourism

Peggy Coleman, vice president of tourism for the Chamber, showcased data from the recently completed Visitor Profile Study.

Coleman said the primary reason visitors are coming to Tompkins County is to engage in outdoor leisure activities or higher education, both reflected in Ithaca’s ranking as the best college town in America by Livability last year.

Another fortunate finding of the study showed that 91% of visitors reported they are likely to return to the county.

Tavares shared that the website Live in Ithaca, which launched last year, has had over 1,200 unique visitors per month from throughout the country and the world.

“That shows you the tremendous interest both in our community and also our jobs and our careers and all of the employers that we have,” Tavares said.

Housing and development

Affordable housing is an issue Tompkins Weekly has tackled before, and during the summit, attendees got a much more in-depth look on the progress of addressing this important issue.

David West, senior planner for Tompkins County, shared a snapshot reviewing 2018 housing-related data. West said housing production continues to fall short of targets set by the Tompkins County Housing Strategy endorsed in 2017.

“We’re building a lot of housing, building more housing than we were building before,” West said. “We’re starting to see the results of that new housing coming on the market in a way that’s measurable, but our housing production continues to fall short of our targets in the housing strategy, particularly for people at the lower end of the income spectrum.”

One notable takeaway from the data was that, while renters in the county are much more likely to be cost burdened compared to their home-owning counterparts, that can mostly be attributed to many of those homeowners having bought their homes many years ago, when prices were low. Thus, new homebuyers face much higher costs than those who have owned their home here for many years.

Tavares presented data and highlights from a recent study commissioned by the Park Foundation, Community Foundation and Chamber Foundation to assess housing development outcomes and solutions to develop income-appropriate housing in the county.

The study showed that the county will continue to face a housing deficit over the next decade unless there is a concentrated effort to add many kinds of housing, including multi-family units, condominiums, infill housing and single-family homes.

Strategies to combat the housing crisis in the county include growing the Community Housing Development Fund, which helps to fund housing projects throughout the county, utilizing tax abatement programs, reducing barriers to development and creating a county-wide zoning task force to help improve the speed and efficiency of the development process.

“We have a lot of priorities as a community, and in terms of getting projects from start to finish, the actual timeline takes much longer than it might in some other communities,” Tavares said. “And what that actually translates into is the real cost for the developers.”

Workforce development and attraction

Julia Mattick, director of the Tompkins County Workforce Development Board, presented data contextualizing demographics and recent workforce trends.

Among the most notable findings was that the population of county residents ages 65 and older is expected to increase greatly in the coming decade, creating a growing senior population that calls for more resources dedicated to this age group.

“We have a labor supply that’s fairly flat and a labor demand that continues to increase,” Mattick said.

Another important takeaway was that a quarter of the county’s labor force consists of in-commuters, with 15,200 in-commuters recorded in 2013, up from 13,600 just three years prior.

Sue Dale-Hall, CEO of the Child Development Council, shared how access to quality, affordable childcare is a key issue for workforce development.

As covered in a previous Tompkins Weekly investigation, Dale-Hall touched on the importance of good-quality, affordable childcare for a healthy workforce.

“[Parents’] attention is at work when they feel they have reliable childcare,” Dale-Hall said.

Ithaca Green New Deal

Nick Goldsmith, sustainability coordinator for the city of Ithaca, shared how the city will work to achieve carbon-neutrality by 2030 through policies like the Green New Deal and the Green Building Policy.

The Green New Deal, adopted by the City of Ithaca Common Council in 2019, addresses climate change, economic inequality and racial injustice. City goals under this plan include meeting the electricity needs of government operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025 and reducing emissions from the city’s vehicle fleet by 50% by 2025.

A larger news item Goldsmith discussed is a new local energy code expected to be in place soon that will require all new buildings in Ithaca to produce 40% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than required by state code. Net zero new construction will be required by 2030.

McDaniel presented on enhanced energy incentive provided by the Industrial Development Agency, for which TCAD provides administrative support. One such incentive was granted to City Centre during its development, allowing it to become 40% more energy efficient than current building code requires. Similar incentives were delivered to upcoming housing projects Library Place and 323 Taughannock.

“It’s a really novel approach to provide direct resources and financial resources for commercial and industrial and multi-family, residential developers early on to come in and talk to an advisor and set energy-reduction goals and then find ways to actually meet those goals,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel said efforts like these help to retain existing businesses and attract more.

“Our number-one priority is to make sure that the companies that are here can stay here, and then, if they’re healthy and they have everything that they need, then we can start to attract companies and grow our community in that direction,” McDaniel said.

Lt. Governor’s address

The lieutenant governor touched on key areas addressed by the governor’s state budget. The budget particularly prioritizes tackling climate change and improving infrastructure, education, economic development, public safety and housing in the state. Goals for the next year include legalizing gestational surrogacy, closing the rape intoxication loophole, passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the state’s constitution and protecting gig economy workers.

Hochul said she is pleased with the plans the city of Ithaca has for its waterfront, and she supports the development efforts the summit promotes.

“The pulse of this community is strong, and it emanates from the heart,” Hochul said.

City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick thanked Hochul for her continued support of local communities like Tompkins County and emphasized the importance of local communities working together to make the state better as a whole.

“Just because our economy’s strong doesn’t mean we don’t have any problems, doesn’t mean there aren’t people being left behind,” Myrick said. “Continuing to invest in places where the economy is working is actually how the whole state is going to improve.”

Keynote

Weaver presented data from the Buffalo Co-Lab as it relates to jobs and population in the county. Most of his presentation contextualized population demographics for the county. Weaver said that over half of Tompkins County consumers fit into three main demographic classifications: College Towns, In Style and Emerald City.

College Towns residents are focused on their education, with most enrolled in college or graduate school. They tend to work part-time and have lower incomes.

In Style residents live in the suburbs and are primarily professional couples, with incomes that fall around the $55,000/year range.

Most of the population of Tompkins County consists of Emerald City residents - people that live in the lower-density parts of an urban area. They’re well educated and more likely to rent because they tend to be more mobile, and they’re entertained by art and culture.

Weaver said these and other population groups in Tompkins County are becoming more vocal of what they want out of businesses within the county, holding businesses to a high standard of “highroad” economic decisions – those that put people and planet above profit.

In next week’s issue of Tompkins Weekly, we’ll be diving more deeply into one of the biggest themes of the summit - how businesses succeed in Tompkins County. Specifically, we’ll be talking with small business owners, advisors and resource providers on why small businesses are crucial to community development and what strategies help small businesses to last.

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