By Rob Montana
Non-profit organizations are plentiful throughout Tompkins County, and make a big impact in our communities. Despite their contributions, area non-profits can sometimes go unnoticed or unknown. In an effort to shine a spotlight on those who are making a difference in our county, Tompkins Weekly will be showcasing these organizations on a regular basis.
This week we are highlighting the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. To learn more, we asked Executive Director Gary Ferguson about the foundation’s role in the community.
Tompkins Weekly: What is your mission?
Gary Ferguson: The Downtown Ithaca Alliance is 501(c)3, not-for-profit organization that was formed in 2007 and is charged with the revitalization, development, promotion, and management of downtown Ithaca’s Business Improvement District, an area that includes The Commons, Dewitt Mall, West State Street, Cayuga Street, Green Street, Aurora Street (Restaurant Row), The Gateway Commons, and Press Bay Alley. Ithaca is fortunate to have a thriving downtown area that features hundreds of specialty shops and boutiques and many locally owned and operated restaurants along with dozens of services and attractions, and we want to maintain this elevated level of offerings for decades to come!
TW: How do you fulfill that mission?
GF: We create special events and promotions that introduce or reacquaint residents and visitors with community’s culture, and that draw thousands of people to downtown for shopping, dining, services, entertainment, and lodging.
For our merchants and community members, we host workshops throughout the year where they learn best business practices and how to organize special events. We also work to help our existing businesses by promoting their offerings in our weekly e-newsletter and on social media feeds and we help recruit and welcome new businesses. In the last year, we welcomed 19 new businesses to downtown. In addition, we research other downtown communities located across the nation to learn best practices for helping our community thrive.
Also, our Ambassador Program, a group of volunteers, offer their services year round to clean the Commons of litter and they assist us during special events. These ambassadors weed and water the plantings in the summer and shovel snow and hang holiday lights in winter. We also have a Seasonal Hospitality Ambassador Program that includes volunteers who greet visitors and answer questions about downtown. For those who want to serve as an Downtown Ithaca ambassador, contact Kris@downtownithaca.com.
We also focus on business retention and development by working with the city to locate projects that best suit this area. Downtown continues to show robust growth, as evidenced by the completion of the Marriott Hotel, Simeon’s, American Crafts building, The Carey Building and the Tompkins County Library projects. Also, several building projects are underway including Harold Square, Tompkins Trust Company’s new headquarters, City Centre, and Canopy Hotel projects which will create new business, employment, lodging, and housing opportunities in downtown.
TW: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces?
GF: Changing the perception that downtown parking is difficult. Many options are available to make parking and paying for parking in downtown simple. Additional information about parking and payment options is available on ParkIthaca.com.
Achieving the best balance of retail, services, and restaurants to meet our visitors wants and needs is another challenge. Currently, because of the increase in online shopping, the state of brick and mortar retail is in jeopardy across the nation. We work with our local retailers to help them find new and engaging ways to stay relevant and competitive in the changing retail landscape.
TW: What are some things people do not know about your organization?
GF: We organize and host many of the downtown’s special events and major promotions such as the Apple Harvest Festival, Ithaca Arts Festival Craft Show, Summer Concert Series, Gallery Night, Ice Festival, the Chili and Chowder cookoffs, Fashion Night, Bite of Ithaca, Halloween Downtown, Student Welcome Weekend (that includes CU Downtown and IC Downtown), and Downtown Employee Appreciation Week.
We administer the Tompkins Festivals Program, which assists tourism generating events in Tompkins County, by providing free equipment rentals, technical assistance, and access to common information. The program is made possible by a grant from the Tompkins County Tourism Program. The Tompkins Festivals program helps county events so they can strengthen the community and draw out-of-county tourists. For more information about this program contact the the Downtown Ithaca Alliance at TCFestivals@gmail.com or call (607) 277-8679.
In addition, we co-created the Pay It Forward Program, where the generous public can donate funds that benefit the community’s less fortunate. We use the funding from this program to provide the less fortunate in the community with freshly prepared meals from participating restaurants and other necessities. Details about Pay It Forward are available at DowntownIthaca.com.
TW: How can people best support your mission?
GF: Simply by visiting downtown, shopping at its stores, dining at its restaurants, using the services that are available, attending the special and promotional events and workshops, following us on social media (we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram), buying Downtown Ithaca Gift Cards. Every time you shop and dine at Downtown Ithaca establishment, you’re helping the local economy. Also, supplying us with feedback about your downtown experiences is another way to help support our mission. You can provide feedback to our organization by emailing us at email@example.com or by posting a review on our Facebook page.
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For more information about the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, visit DowntownIthaca.com.