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County to Explore Possible New Home for History Center

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County to Explore Possible New Home for History Center

Friday, October 28, 2016

Tompkins County today announced that it is exploring the purchase of the Tompkins Trust Building on the Ithaca Commons to serve as a new home for The History Center in Tompkins County and a proposed heritage education center. As a part of that exploration, the County Legislature’s Government Operations Committee is being asked to approve a $15,000 appropriation to undertake a structural, mechanical, and codes assessment of the building. If approved, the request for funds for the assessment will go to the full Legislature for a vote on November 15th.

The potential purchase is being considered in advance of the expiration of The History Center’s 25-year lease in the Gateway Commons Building at the end of 2018. Over the past year, the Center and key partners have been reviewing alternative downtown locations, including the Tompkins Trust building, which will be vacated in 2018 when the bank moves employees to its new Seneca Street headquarters. The group identified the building’s location, architectural character, and visibility as important advantages.

The potential County purchase of a building is tied to the County’s longstanding role of providing space for a museum that preserves the records and artifacts that document the County’s history. The County is seeking ways to minimize its cost while also maximizing The History Center’s role as a community attraction, tourism destination, and anchor for a heritage education center housing several other non-profits involved in promoting the area’s history, heritage, and culture.

The History Center’s Executive Director Rod Howe, who has fostered the heritage education center concept, said he is “pleased by the County’s willingness to explore acquisition of a building that has great potential to serve Tompkins County residents and visitors, is in a central location, and has the right architectural character to house complementary non-profits coming together in a common space.” Howe indicated that several community agencies, including the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation, which is refurbishing the vintage “Tommy Plane”, the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the offices of the Wharton Studio Museum, the offices of the Discovery Trail and Hangar Theater, Historic Ithaca, and the Community Arts Partnership have indicated an interest in participating in the heritage education center.

County Legislature Chair Michael Lane said “The County is approaching the prospect of purchasing a building with due caution. This would, however, create a wonderful historical museum and research facility for the people of our community in the heart of our County Seat. It would have the very real potential of generating additional room tax and sales tax revenue for the County by increasing tourism activity. The building is located in one of the strongest centers for economic development in the County and, over the years, would likely maintain or increase in value.”

Lane also noted the County’s consideration of the project coincides with the 2017 Tompkins County Bicentennial. “If we decide to go forward, I can’t think of a more fitting commemoration of the County’s Bicentennial than to provide a permanent home to showcase our history and heritage.”

Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Tavares said she has been supportive of the County’s exploration of the project, and believes a heritage education center could lead to Tompkins County’s emergence as a hub of heritage tourism in the entire region. “The County’s recent Strategic Tourism Plan recognizes the untapped potential of heritage tourism, as does Senator Gillibrand’s work to create a 14-county national heritage corridor in our region. A spectacular, well-connected heritage education center could position Tompkins County to take advantage of new opportunities in heritage tourism, and drive tourism jobs and dollars into our economy. “

If approved by the Legislature, the County will conduct a building assessment over the next two months. At the end of that period, and with the building assessment in hand, the County Legislature will consider acquisition of the building.

The History Center is a non-profit organization with roots that extend to Ezra Cornell’s 1863 vision of a local historical society. It is a generation-to-generation education and research center, whose purpose is to preserve and encourage access to its unique collections, while providing learning experiences and services that create opportunities for people to learn about themselves and their place in the world. The Center has been located in the Gateway Building since 1993.