Tompkins Weekly

Conference Center construction nears the end, facility to open in the spring

Suzanne Smith Jablonski, executive director of Downtown Ithaca Local Development Corporation, at the site of the Green Street construction for the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center Sept. 27. Photo by Jaime Cone Hughes

The Ithaca Downtown Conference Center, anticipated to be the first fully electrified conference center in the United States, is slated to open in April 2024.

The construction site will be closing down soon, the residential portion of the building will be finished last, and if everything goes according to plan, by summer the conference center will welcome its first large groups from out of town.

Construction update: Seeing the light at the end of the alley

The construction site will be gradually disassembled throughout the fall and the first half of the winter, Bruce Adib-Yazdi, vice president of development for Vecino Group, said on Friday. Vecino Group is the development firm charged with the construction of the new building.

The big, yellow tower crane that has become a fixture on Green Street will come down by the end of this week, Adib-Yazdi said. The Ithaca City Hall parking lot will then be torn up and replaced within the next four to six weeks.

The new conference center stands 11 stories tall and will feature two ballrooms, an executive board room, 181 affordable apartments and retail space.

The goal, Adib-Yazdi said, is to have the hardscape done by the end of November or early December. He said that between Thanksgiving and Christmas people will start to see a big difference when walking through The Commons, as the scaffolding around Harold Square and the alley will come down.  

A rendering of the completed Ithaca Downtown Conference Center currently under construction in Ithaca. Image provided.

Though the conference center will likely be finished by January, the living spaces will take longer to complete. Events cannot be held in the center until the rest of the building is done, Adib-Yazdi said.

“We cannot have people occupying the first or second floor and still be working on life safety items on the top floors, like fire alarms and the sprinkler system,” he explained.

The project was originally slated to open this fall, but several factors delayed the project, including the COVID-19 pandemic. “The approvals required from the city came right in March 2020, but then the hard work of making it a reality happened during the pandemic,” Suzanne Smith Jablonski, executive director of Downtown Ithaca Local Development Corporation (LDC), an organization created for the purpose of operating the Downtown Ithaca Conference Center, said on Wednesday.

The supply chain and manpower issues that have plagued construction projects nationwide in recent years, coupled with the unique architecture of the building, converged to create delays.  

“This project is constructed in such a way that it’s not like it’s a whole bunch of steel beams,” Adib-Yazdi said. The elements of the construction are not prefabricated.

“You can’t just go vertical,” Adib-Yazdi explained. “You have to build it as you go. … It’s just a very complicated site.”

Because of the multiple ballrooms on the lower levels, the conference center has a wide span of free space on the first two stories. There are no columns in the ballrooms, and yet the structure still needs to support the upper floors.

“I am in awe of the constructional engineers,” Adib-Yazdi said. “It’s being submitted for a couple of steel construction awards because of the way they were able to build a ballroom with nine stories on top.”

 The team responsible for the design is STAND Engineering of Overland Park, Kansas.

“As you can visually see, the summer months have been spent trying to get our building to the height it’s supposed to be, and our exterior envelope up,” Adib-Yazdi said.

Workers were challenged by the “significant amount of rain” that occurred over the summer months compared to the average amount of summer rainfall normally seen in Ithaca.

“It was a struggle keeping the interior as dry as possible,” Adib-Yazdi said, adding that the roof was put on just a week ago.

The cost of the $100,000 million project has remained within the original budget, according to Adib-Yazdi.

This is despite the fact that in 2020 and 2021 “costs were changing weekly,” Adib-Yazdi said.

“It’s been very painful,” he added. “Whether you have to change some of the design elements, or whether you have to go back and negotiate with other vendors or squeeze our subcontractors — but that’s standard, everyday procedures.”

Adib-Yazdi said the affordable housing aspect of the project is important to him. The apartments are in a variety of sizes, with a range of income requirements. He encourages people to look into applying for an apartment, even if they do not think they are eligible.

Fancy and fossil-free: Adding a clean, green kitchen

Recently the Downtown Ithaca LDC added an all-electric kitchen to the building’s plans.

This is in keeping with local Green New Deal goals, Smith Jablonski said.

“We are so proud to say this is a fossil-free conference center,” she said, adding that it will be the first of its kind in the country to feature an all-electric kitchen, making the entire building fossil fuel-free.

The cost of upgrading the kitchen from gas to electric is projected at around $525,000, Adib-Yazdi said, but grant money secured for the project will cover that cost.

Tom Leaonard, a chef who has experience working in electric kitchens, was brought on by ASM Global to be the executive chef.

“So that’s a real bonus,” Smith Jablonski said.

ASM Global is a venue and event management company that will manage the conference center.

“They operate venues around the world, from conference centers to arenas, so they have a breadth of experience,” Smith Jablonski said of ASM Global. “Our job is to work in partnership with them to make sure the center is successful.”

Local business benefits

The Albany Capital Center and the Oncenter in Syracuse are both run by ASM Global, and the LDC looks to them as experts on comparable projects, who can provide guidance through the years. ASM’s industry knowledge and understanding of working in New York state works to the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center’s advantage, Smith Jablonski said.

The priority for bringing events to the community are midweek and multi-day conferences for out-of-town guests, Smith Jablonski said, but the LDC will also bring in community-based events as well.

The Downtown Ithaca Alliance commissioned two feasibility studies to determine whetherIthaca had the market to sustain such a large project and found that it did. The findings would have likely looked different two decades ago, Smith Jablonski said, but now that four downtown hotels have opened in recent years — Hotel Ithaca was renovated, and Ithaca Marriott Downtown on The Commons, Hilton Garden Inn Ithaca and Canopy by Hilton Ithaca Downtown all opened in recent years —  the community is better equipped to host the large gatherings the conference center is designed to attract.

Smith Jablonski said that there are opportunities for local businesses to partner with the conference center. For example, she noted that groups holding a conference at the center could utilize Cinemapolis to host a screen that accompanies their event.

The same goes for the State Theatre of Ithaca, Smith Jablonski said, and downtown restaurants such as Coltivare could also serve as an ancillary location.

“There are opportunities for partnerships with downtown retailers,” Smith Jablonski said. “As conferences come in, we’ll be thinking about how to make sure that, in their free time and [when] they’re looking to do shopping and dining and spending time in the community, how do we work together to ensure the best benefit.”

It is projected that the conference center will bring in about $11.4 million in local tax revenue in the next 20 years, said Peggy Coleman, vice president of tourism for the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

There are benefits to local businesses that have connections to large events that many people might not necessarily think of, Coleman said.

“Our operator, ASM Global, their vision is very much to source locally when it comes to food and beverages,” Coleman said. “Farmers and producers are going to be benefiting.”

“The linens: we’ll be renting linens from local companies,” she added. “The florists, I know, will benefit.”

The Ithaca Tompkins International Airport, with its nonstop flights to and from John F. Kennedy and Newark airports, is a major selling point for organizations considering booking the venue, and the airport will benefit from the additional business, according to Coleman.

Smith Jablonski said that the goal is for the conference center to be a positive presence within the Ithaca area.

“The entire spirit of it is that we are here to benefit the community, so the overriding charge is, ‘What can we do to have the greatest impact to the community?’”

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