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December 06, 2016
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Ithaca mayor impresses and entertains; Turning around a city

Svante Myrick, mayor of Ithaca, NY, addresses the audience as the keynote speaker at the Sullivan Renaissance annual Conference, Expo and Local Market on March 8.
TRR photo by Fritz Mayer

FERNDALE, NY — If the goal of Sullivan Renaissance is to help communities improve, then Svante Myrick was an inspired choice to deliver the keynote speech at the Sullivan Renaissance annual Conference, Expo and Local Market on March 8 at the CVI Building in Ferndale.

Myrick was elected to the Ithaca City Council when he was 20 years old. Four years later in 2012, he was elected as the city’s mayor and became the youngest mayor ever elected in New York State, and the first black mayor for Ithaca.

How did he do that? He said he knocked on every one of the 8,000 doors in the city, twice, and got part way through a third round. But the inspirational part of the story was what he did after landing the job as mayor.

He said, “We were facing the largest budget deficit in our city’s history, $3 million.” In order to close the deficit, he would have had to lay off 15% of the city’s employees or raise taxes by 20%.

Two years later, the budget gap is closed with no layoffs, with the smallest tax increase in years, and Ithaca is “the fastest growing community in New York State.” Unemployment is down to 4%, and there is $200 million in private investment in various developments occurring in the city. Further, the crumbling water and sewer infrastructure beneath the town commons is being rebuilt with state and federal grants.

How did he do it? Myrick said that in order to lead and make change you need to have “creativity and credibility.” He then spelled out several examples where those traits came into play in helping to revive the city.

He said, “As you try new solutions to old problems, the largest problem you are going to face is cynicism.”

He said one of his early efforts at bringing a new energy to the city involved the use of the parking space he received with his position as mayor. Not having a car, he decided to be creative with the space. He moved some underused park benches into the parking space and some huge planters with trees, and it became the city’s smallest park.

“It was silly,” he said, “but it was a symbol that good things were still possible.”

In bringing fireworks back to the city after an absence of many years, he asked the police chief if his department could handle crowd control and parking. The chief responded that it would never work, due to various roadblocks, including a lack of money. Other officials responded similarly. He went on a local radio program and appealed to the public for the necessary $15,000, and wound up raising $30,000.

In coming up with a plan to rebuild the commons, he said, “We recruited 40 of the crankiest downtown stakeholders, and invited them to design the new commons.” They worked for eight months, and the people who were most likely to criticize the plan had ownership of it.

In applying for a federal grant to help pay for the building, he said, “We decided to become the squeakiest little wheel.” They sent 300 letters to various officials. Myrick also personally lobbied senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and then-congressman Maurice Hinchey, and the city was ultimately successful in acquiring a $4.5 million grant. That led to a $2 million grant from the state.

To keep businesses from closing during the two-year renovation of the commons, the city worked with landlords to create a competition to lure new businesses with free rent for a year, for three months and for six months, and that effort resulted in 12 new businesses moving into the commons before construction ever started.