At the heart of Downtown Ithaca’s identity is a collection of small, local businesses that make the city truly unique. These businesses often struggle to stay afoot, but in the end contribute vastly to Ithaca’s distinctive community and culture. Therefore, any policy regarding expansion of business downtown should make support for these establishments the highest priority. It would make sense to provide incentives for the creation and expansion of businesses like these rather than large developments financed by corporations from outside the Ithaca area, and local policies should be reflective of those ideas.
Despite the local community’s embrace of small, one-of-a-kind businesses, the direction taken by local government on this issue indicates different priorities. In August, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Tompkins County Legislator Rich John published an opinion piece in the Ithaca Journal entitled “Investing in Community is How Ithaca Thrives.” In their piece, Myrick and John attribute what they see as a vibrant state of Downtown Ithaca to the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program (CIITAP). The program, which provides tax incentives for developments large enough to increase the value of a property by at least $500,000, has been utilized for the construction of projects such as the downtown Hilton and Marriott hotels. Myrick and John present the use of CIITAP as an easy and consistent path towards increasing revenue for the City due to growth it provides to its tax base. They go on to suggest that Ithaca stands out relative to other upstate cities because of large developments encouraged by programs like CIITAP. This prioritization of incentives for large development projects over the growth of smaller local businesses is harmful in both its creation of an individual arrangement that deals with broad economic challenges, and in its overlooking of the businesses that do more to contribute to the local culture and community.
Much of the allure of favoring large individual developments is the potential of a project to quickly solve problems in the local economy, which supporters of CIITAP have given in to. The conclusion Myrick and John come to in their piece is dependent on the assumption that the state of Downtown Ithaca is entirely attributable to programs like CIITAP that encourage large developments. However, to solely credit the actions of the local government on Downtown Ithaca’s uniqueness and prosperity compared to other cities in Upstate New York would be giving too much credit to the city to where it is not all due. The state that Downtown Ithaca has entered is largely a result of the actions of diverse individuals who started their own businesses, fostering the growth of what Ithaca has become since then. Ironically, these are the businesses that the tourists staying in the large downtown hotels will be attracted to, and are the ones that provide the uniqueness that no large development projects financed by corporations will ever be able to replicate. Only crediting city policies on the success of Ithaca’s development in comparison to other upstate cities is a stretch, and should not be used as justification of such policies.
A possible improvement to this general agenda would be to try to incrementally replicate what is currently only being done for developments valued at half a million dollars or more on a smaller scale. Currently, no small-business aid exists that provides support with the same level of impact that CIITAP has on larger developments. If these tax abatements were not just used for massive developments, it would be possible for them to be used directly to support small, locally-run businesses. Over time this would have the same effect of supporting economic growth in Downtown Ithaca, while also having more of those abatements going to businesses that are actually in need of them to get by. Although it may be less tempting to engage in a more restrained, gradual means of supporting downtown development, doing so would greatly benefit smaller, local businesses in Downtown Ithaca.
If the City of Ithaca continues to support providing tax abatements through programs like CIITAP that aid the growth of downtown business, it should also provide smaller local businesses with aid. Doing so would be better economically and culturally for the community than supporting developments by large corporations from outside of the local area. It may seem tempting to look at incentives for large development projects as easy and consistent sources of revenue, but they are no substitute for providing that aid directly to local businesses, doing the most to support the community that they help cultivate in Ithaca.