As Cornell and Ithaca awoke on November 8, 1995, the headlines of the Cornell Daily Sun proclaimed a new era in the city’s government. The headline announced the victory of mayoral candidate Alan Cohen ’81. Described as a “Mayoral Shocker,” Cohen’s election marked the first change in the mayor’s office since 1989. In a victory over incumbent mayor Benjamin Nichols ’46, Cohen won 2,243 votes, totaling 50.3% of the votes cast.
Two terms and eight years later, Cohen has turned the reigns of the city over to new mayor Carolyn Peterson, and is looking towards his future and reflecting on his past in Ithaca.
As a graduate of Cornell and the owner of Simeon’s, a bar on The Ithaca Commons that he turned into a restaurant, Cohen said that he began to see many problems that made him want to increase his involvement in the community.
Noting rising crime rates (including increasing drug use) and a failing economy in the city among other issues, Cohen decided to run for mayor.
Cohen said that at the beginning of his term, a large amount of internal restructuring had to be done within the city government.
“I didn’t realize how dysfunctional the organization of city government was until I walked in the door,” he said.
Cohen said that some of the important steps in restructuring included establishing a human resources department, information technology department and working to build up a management team to assess the city and its employees.
“I worked on a number of different levels to empower city employees,” Cohen said.
According to Cohen, the lack of businesses on the Commons was a great concern for the city and for him when he entered office.
“At that point the Commons had a 35% vacancy rate,” he said.
One of the large steps Cohen and other officials tried to take in working to establish the Commons as a center of business was to change the image of the area and the city in general.
According to Cohen, “the city had an anti-business reputation.”
In March of 1997, the Ithaca Downtown Partnership (I.D.P.) was established. According to the organization’s mission statement, “Downtown Ithaca is the economic, social and cultural heart of Tompkins County. The Ithaca Downtown Partnership will strive to preserve and develop the central downtown core as the region’s center for banking and finance, business and professional offices, government and community services, downtown residences, and as a retail destination highlighted by specialty shops, restaurants, arts and entertainment.”
Cohen said he has worked with the I.D.P as well as other community organizations to increase business in the Commons.
The city also “invested a lot of money into the infrastructure of downtown,” according to Cohen.
However, Cohen has been criticized by some in the community for his support of big business development in the city, such as in the southwest area of Ithaca.
Cohen defended his decisions, saying that he views large chain stores and leaps in development as a “necessary evil.”
According to Cohen, “the fact of the matter was and is that our residents were driving out of town and spending literally millions of dollars outside of our county.”
Cohen said that in order to benefit from tax dollars the stores would generate, “I felt it was critical that they be located in the city.”
Ed Hershey, a six-year member of the Ithaca Common Council, said that the issue of big business was not that residents did not want to patronize chain stores.
“They were shopping in chain stores, just not in Ithaca,” Hershey said. Cohen said that the economic growth the city is seeing and will see in the future is “incremental” and that the city is “already seeing some interesting developments.”
These developments, according to Cohen, include an increase in jobs (“there’s a base of 3000 people who work downtown and we are adding 500 employees to that,” Cohen said) and wage scale as well as a more attractive area for new home builders and businesses.
According to Hershey, “It’s going to transform this city and help the people who really need the help.”
Some critics of big business in Ithaca, though, have pointed out the character of Ithaca as an independent community as a reason why chain stores and big business may be detrimental to the city.
Over his years in office, the relationship between the City of Ithaca and Cornell has been a priority for Cohen.
“When I came into office, relations were at an all-time low,” Cohen said. In an effort to reestablish contact with the University, Cohen spoke to Cornell trustees in 1996 to “lay a groundwork to establish a new relationship.”
There has been concern in the community of what that relationship means for the city, and exactly what type of contribution the University will make to the community. In October, Cohen and the University were criticized as the Ithaca Common Council reluctantly approved a Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U), which commits Cornell to a large annual donation to the city, with the term that should the University feel it is being treated “arbitrarily and capriciously” it can revoke the sum.
In response to the feelings about the memorandum and concern about the University’s role, Cohen said that he believes it is not possible to ignore Cornell, as it is the “engine behind the community.”
Cohen cautioned, though, “I’m not a believer that everything good for Cornell is good for Ithaca,” and said that during his administration “there was a lot of give and take” between the city and the University.
Cohen’s style of leadership was also an often-discussed topic during his terms in office.
According to Hershey, “he took a hit sometimes for his style.”
“I’m clearly not your typical politician,” Cohen said. According to Cohen, he was viewed as “very aggressive” by people because of his desire to “push to get things done.”
Hershey said Cohen’s sometimes aggressive nature was a product of the issues and environment he was in. “He had more patience than I ever could,” he said.
“A lot of people didn’t like me in office because I brought up issues that made people uncomfortable,” he said.
Julie Conley Holcomb, City Clerk, has worked with Cohen during both of his terms.
She described him as a leader with “good vision” who “pretty much jumps in with both feet.”
“He’s a very energetic person,” she added.
As Cohen reflected on the events of his terms in office, he said “there’s no one accomplishment” that he is most proud of. He noted the construction of the skateboard park and “helping steer the city through what was the most difficult budgetary situation” as two things he looks fondly back on.
As Mayor Peterson begins her term, Cohen said that he looks forward to the new mayor’s success.
“I love my community and I want its leader to be successful,” he said. As far as advice for his successor, Cohen had many pieces to offer.
“Consensus is a wonderful utopian ideal, but in a community this diverse and large, you’re going to kill yourself trying to please everyone,” he said. He added that the new mayor should “remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt that ‘great minds talk about ideas, medium minds talk about events and small minds talk about people.'”
Now, Cohen faces a new era of his own. While he has not di
sclosed exactly what his plans are, he is currently interviewing for jobs and hopes to stay in Ithaca, settle down and raise a family.
“I’m hoping to stay in town,” he said, adding that he is still attracted to Ithaca because of “the intellectual environment combined with a very healthy environment.”
Cohen said that it has been an adjustment from being mayor to regular citizen.
“It is difficult to be in a position where you have access to all information and are the final voice and then go to nothing.” However, he added in reference to his time off, “right now Im a very happy person.”
According to Cohen, the future will possibly also hold more community involvement for him.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
Archived article by Kate Cooper