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Ithaca Downtown Conference Center: First fully electric conference center in the U.S.

The $34 million Ithaca Downtown Conference Center is located at 118 E. Green St., Ithaca.

ITHACA, NY— The desire to have a conference center in Downtown Ithaca has been alive for several decades, and now the Downtown Ithaca Local Development Corporation is satisfying the lack of event space in the city with a $34 million fully electric conference center—the first of its kind in the U.S.

With any “first,” it has created a lot of buzz around the center itself, as the conference center serves as a pioneer in what's to come of green construction.

“It makes complete sense that Ithaca is where this first fully electric conference center would be,” said Director of Sales Taryn Mullenix, an Ithaca native. “Everyone is hyper-aware of sustainability now, which is amazing, so the sustainability aspect also makes for a good pitch with boards and company values."

While original plans did not call for the center to be fully electric, new regulations like the Ithaca Green New Deal and the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement, introduced in 2019 and 2021, respectively, dictated more robust sustainability standards for new construction.

“My hope is that the managers of the conference center lean into that part of its identity,” said City of Ithaca Director of Sustainability Rebecca Evans. “They could really make it a hub for education to highlight different technologies.”

The Ithaca Energy Code Supplement requires buildings constructed in 2023 to produce 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than buildings built in accordance with the New York State Energy Conservation Construction Code. The original plans would have satisfied this goal, but additional funding from the federal government allowed for it to be fully green.

“We secured a $2 million grant from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to be used toward our electrification, and other efforts enabled the project to reconfigure,” Executive Director of Downtown Ithaca Local Development Corporation Suzanne Smith Jablonski said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to ensure the conference center is aligned with the city's Ithaca Green New Deal goals, and it has been a very compelling part of the sales pitch that we've been making to meet planners and others.”

Twenty years ago, the Ithaca Downtown Alliance commissioned Pinnacle Consulting to determine if an event center would fit the city. Ultimately, the 2003 study signaled Ithaca was not feasible due to a lack of hotel options, accessibility constraints, limited air service and an adequate supply of local event venues to fill demand. A 2017 study by Hunden Strategic Partners recommended the development of a conference center, and an updated version of the study in 2019 reiterated its preparedness for a luxury conference center.

“I think Ithaca did the right thing a few years ago to wait because they needed the hotels, which are now all over downtown, to welcome the guests,” Ithaca Downtown Conference Center General Manager Jason Humphrey said. “They built the infrastructure for welcoming those guests before we had the venue to welcome those guests. So I thought that it was smart how it was planned.”

From 2003 to 2017, significant changes in transportation and new development set the stage for city officials to even consider a large-scale meeting space in downtown. Tourism and visitation to Ithaca increased with the redevelopment of the Ithaca Commons and the addition of two hotels in the downtown area, adding 282 hotel beds. As more people came to the area, the number of event venues stayed the same, creating a lack of competitive local venues.

In 2017, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency requested proposals to redevelop a parking garage on Green Street to change the structure into affordable housing, a conference center and a new parking garage with all three components financed separately. The agency selected Vecino Group of Springfield, Missouri, as developer in 2018.

“As a downtown urban-oriented project, we've done several of those kinds of projects in our company history and thought it would be an interesting project for us, especially with the affordable housing side, which we are all about,” said Vecino Group VP of Development Bruce Adib-Yazdi. “Personally, it's a very complicated project, and I feel like I have waited my entire career to be doing a project like this.”

The complex proposed by Vecino Group stands 12 stories and features two ballrooms, an executive board room, 181 apartments with rent based on income and a new parking garage. The Vecino Group worked with STAND Engineering of Overland Park, Kansas to design the conference center.

“We’ve got to support everything structurally underneath with all housing up top and make it all open,” Adib-Yazdi said. “Figuring out how to do that was the real challenge.”

The primary financial contributors to the $34 million conference center are municipal bonds, state grants, hotel revenue and the city's 5% room occupancy tax. Vecino Group closed the financing in June 2021, shortly before the groundbreaking in September, according to Adib-Yazdi. The group is also responsible for Asteri Ithaca, a $62 million housing development above the conference center.

“The conference center itself will be a beautiful state-of-the-art facility, and we'll be able to accommodate so many different kinds of meetings and events and configurations,” Jablonski said. “We have wonderful partners in downtown that allow us to offer a really well-rounded experience.”

The space is ideal for 250 to 400 people, according to Jablonski, but if larger groups want to host events, Cinemapolis or the State Theater can serve as additional venue space. The Ithaca Downtown Conference Center is over 15,000 square feet of bi-level meeting space spread across a first-floor junior ballroom, a boardroom accommodating 10 to 12 executives, a second-floor grand ballroom and common areas among both floors. Both ballrooms can be reconfigured to allow for breakout sessions.

Asteri Conference LLC and Asteri Ithaca LLC together own the 12-story building, and the non-profit Downtown Ithaca Local Development Corporation leases the conference center portion. The Ithaca Downtown Conference Center is managed by ASM Global, which oversees more than 350 facilities worldwide. Nearby facilities ASM manages include The Oncenter in Syracuse and Albany Capital Center in the state’s capital. The Ithaca Downtown Conference Center will be one of the smallest in the company’s portfolio.

“Having a company like ASM Global managing the conference center has enabled us to make the job positions more compelling and competitive,” Jablonski said.

ASM Global attracted general manager Jason Humphrey, who most recently served as event services manager at the University of Pittsburgh. He returned to his hometown of Ithaca, where he previously was catering sales manager at Cornell University and assistant general manager of Hilton Garden Inn Ithaca.

“Ithaca doesn’t have major highways that come into our city, which makes us even more charming,” Humphrey said. “Ithaca is pretty central for the state. So, these statewide associations might have events hosted in New York City. If you're in Buffalo, you're driving seven, eight hours. Instead of driving seven hours to get to this other side of the state, you can come to us, which will only be three hours of travel.”

Ithaca’s central location, he believes, is a strong selling point when promoting the conference center to planners of large-scale events.

To build awareness for the conference center, ASM Global works with tourism group Small Market Meetings to offer tours of the space with event planners. matches small meeting planners with smaller venues like the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center, hoping to secure bookings for summer 2024. On Nov. 14, 2023, Meeting Professionals International Upstate New York Chapter took a hard hat tour of the space, and its members took the first bite of menu items to taste-test food prepared in the center’s fully electric kitchen.

Plans for the initial kitchen required a $525,000 increase to upgrade from gas to electric, according to Adib-Yazdi. The full, on-site culinary team can prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner with zero carbon emissions. According to the National Restaurant Association, 76% of restaurants use natural gas, so finding a chef willing to cook in a fully electric kitchen proved to be challenging.

“I knew it would be difficult to find an executive chef in this area because we already have so many good organizations for them to work for,” Humphrey said. A regional search was launched in April 2023.

Chef Tom Leonard’s resume caught Humphrey's attention because of his experience in Ithaca and working with electric stoves. Leonard worked onboard American Cruise Lines for a portion of his career, which required him to cook in an all-electric kitchen. Additionally, his reputation as executive chef of Inn at Taughannock Falls, where he served guests since 2018, made him a standout candidate, according to Humphrey.

“We are not able to get into our kitchen yet, but we do have our menu created,” Humphrey said. “When I look at the menu, I’m ready to order half the items every day.”

Good food and sustainability practices drew planners to explore the center, but the 2017 and 2019 Hunden Strategic Partners study also addressed challenges the center might face in “selling” the space. The geographic location, high rates, airfare and lack of highways and insufficient meeting spaces were top on the list of reasons why planners skipped over Ithaca.

Mullenix, the center’s sales director, is working to address client hesitations by showing why she believes Ithaca is the right fit. One improvement to the challenges is the addition of nonstop flights to New York City from the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport, and in 2024, service will be restored to Washington D.C. with flights.

“We're really just addressing that although it is a little harder to get to a college town, it's worth it when you get here,” Mullenix said. “I think it could almost be more ideal. You go to these larger cities, and things are spread out. You could find everything you needed within a two-block radius with us being in the heart of the downtown Ithaca district.”

Insufficient meeting facilities were the leading reason for lost event business in previous years, but now that the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center will soon be able to host guests, it is projected to generate $100 million over 20 years, according to the 2019 study. Its opening will support onsite jobs, restaurants, retailers and jobs in the four anchor hotels: Canopy by Hilton Ithaca Downtown, Ithaca Marriott Downtown on the Commons, Hilton Garden Inn and Hotel Ithaca.

Construction of the conference center will be completed in January 2024, but because of the housing located on the top floors, management will wait until at least June 2024 to start booking events. Of the 181 apartments in the residential tower, 40 will be supportive homes referred to and supported by Tompkins Community Action. Rent for the remaining 141 units will be affordable and set aside for those making 30, 50 and 80% of the area's median income.

“The conference center is in the final stages of construction,” Adib-Yazdi said during an interview in November of 2023. “Some rooms are being painted, and tile is going in. And all the mechanicals and electricals are pretty well completed. The residential tower, the nine stories above it, is in various stages.”

As construction nears completion, the sales team is beginning to book events for the second half of 2024. In November, the food and agriculture startup competition Grow-NY announced it will host its annual summit in Ithaca in 2024. Mullenix confirmed that it would be at the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center.

“Grow-NY is really very exciting,” she said. “It allows Cornell University to host something bigger in this area to showcase their university, and it also gives us, as the venue, a chance to showcase how we can host these bigger events. So, just bringing an event and a conference of that size into this area only benefits everyone across the board.”

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