Ari Dubow / Sun City Editor

The Planning and Development Board met April 8 over Zoom to discuss Ithaca's current economic situation among other issues.

April 9, 2020

Planning and Development Board Discusses Plans to Help Ithaca Land on its Feet

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Committees scrambling to address the local economic fallout of the pandemic collected data from two surveys of Ithaca businesses. The numbers were concerning.

Based on data from from 262 respondents, 57 percent of businesses in the city are temporarily closed, 62 percent have seen a decrease in consumer demand, almost half have furloughed employees and 40 percent reported that they have no reserves of emergency financing.

Two-thirds of participating businesses reported that their landlords have not been flexible. Three percent of Ithaca businesses have already closed permanently as a result of the pandemic.

These numbers, brought to the board’s April 8 Zoom meeting by Deputy Director for Economic Development Tom Knipe, were collected and reported by the Economic Recovery Cabinet and the Economic Development Service Providers Group. The two committees are staffed by local officials and community leaders, working to mitigate the economic pains Ithacans anticipate in the coming months.

Over the last 10 days, the newly formed Small Business Resiliency Fund helped coordinate thousands in funding from local groups. Tompkins County Development Corporation approved $150,000 on April 8, and the Ithaca Urban Renewal Association approved $140,000 earlier this week, according to Knipe.

Members of the fund are also planning to offer a $5,000 micro-loan to small businesses, which would be forgiven for businesses that reopen, Knipe said, citing businesses that lack the necessary cash to maintain operations.

Alderperson Cynthia Brock (D-2nd Ward) pushed the committees to account for the diversity of business in Ithaca — particularly in the Route 13 corridor on the west side — pointing to the high density of small and minority-owned businesses in that area.

Knipe said the city officials are trying to plan the best they can to support the reopening of businesses, whenever that may be. According to Knipe, 1,300 people applied for unemployment in Tompkins County last week, and 500 applied for unemployment the week before.

Knipe added that it is important for city officials to design a plan ahead of time to “re-deploy”  the laid-off workers as soon as they can safely return to work.

The city is also developing a newsletter that will help people find the financial assistance they need as the crisis continues its course.

Additionally, the board addressed a series of business-as-usual items, though the pandemic was often part of the conversation.

JoAnn Cornish, planning director, announced the temporary suspension of the hiring process for the city’s Green New Deal supervisor, given the overall uncertainty of the city’s finances and priorities in the coming months.

But Cornish, as well as Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, emphasized that the hiring will eventually move ahead.

“Climate change is still happening,” Cornish said. “We still need to do this.”

The board also discussed changes to the waterfront zoning rules, which included the reduction of permissible lot coverage from 100 percent to 60 percent, and a 20-foot minimum between buildings.

But Stephen Smith (D-4th Ward) brought an amendment to raise the lot coverage maximum to 75 percent and require 10 percent greenspace per lot.

The amendment passed three to two, with Seph Murtaugh Ph.D. ’09 (D-2nd Ward), Laura Lewis (D-5th Ward) and Smith voting for; Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) and Brock opposed. The committee planned to revisit the issue.

Murtagh raised the issue of the lack of public comment on agenda items – during in-person meetings, the floor is open at the beginning of the meeting for members of the public to address the board directly, but for Zoom meetings, comments public comments are solicited beforehand to then be summarized by board members.

Murtaugh attributed the shortage of public comments to the pandemic. “People’s minds are just elsewhere,” Murtagh said. “It’s a concern I have with every agenda item we’re dealing with tonight.”