While the last minute resolution placed on Councilors’ desks at the February 4th meeting left the public feeling that Council had ‘pulled a fast one,’ it was not so bad after all. But unanimously approved surprise resolutions can not be standard operating procedure if the Mayor, City Manager, and Council want to engender public trust. We know that motivation matters, and there was no sinister intent here, but we have seen a lack of predictability erode public confidence for years, and we don’t expect the new administration to fall back into the bad habits of the past.
With that resolution, City Council authorized submission of paperwork formally declaring the City’s intentions to establish a “visitors center” on the lakefront. It is the next step toward the possible drawing down of $5 million in state dollars earmarked for Geneva last year by State Senator Mike Nozzolio. The state’s budget crisis has raised doubts about the ultimate availability of the funds.
This money, part of Nozzolio’s self-proclaimed “21st Century Geneva Initiative” was initially described as seed money for a dynamic destination on Geneva’s lakefront. Here’s how the Senator’s website currently describes it:
$5 million – New Finger Lakes Visitor Center in Geneva
A new Finger Lakes Visitor Center located in Geneva will be a signature building for the Finger Lakes region that will serve as a destination for tourists and the Finger Lakes region. The Center will be interactive for visitors and will place an emphasis on the natural beauty of our area as well as the wineries in the region. The Geneva Chamber of Commerce will relocate to the new facility and will continue their work to promote tourism in the region. The Visitor Center will be state-of-the-art and will serve as a destination for all those seeking information on the many attractions of the Finger Lakes region.
The Finger Lakes Visitor Center will be modeled after the very successful New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, which highlights the food and wines produced in New York State.
However, at the time the grant was first announced, the City was already undergoing a significant downtown-waterfront planning process with help from Bergmann Associates. That plan, according to records of numerous focus-group and other community-input sessions [contained in the report's Appendix that you can read here], was initially aimed at some sort of ecological or cultural ‘interpretive’ center on the waterfront. It also focused on other tourism-based facilities, like hotel and conference center space in the downtown.
The Bergmann report, unveiled to the public last August, took a sharp turn away from that vision by plopping a massive residential/ commercial/ professional office structure on the lakefront, what became known as the notorious Building 12, next to the Ramada Inn. The report called it the “Visitors Center” to dovetail with the Nozzolio earmark.
No need to re-visit our entire analysis of how the plan got to that point, of how “residential” reappeared as a way to subsidize a “visitors center” when the project was determined to be an unsustainable money-loser. There is now general agreement in the City with our point of view about that. However, we do want to examine links between the Nozzolio earmark and the Chamber of Commerce, and how, through that association, the scope of the project moved away from ‘dynamic tourism destination’ and instead towards ‘enhancements of existing services.’
An earlier post discusses the Chamber of Commerce’s strong and public support for “Building 12” and their position, given voice by board member Kelly Mittiga, that Council “should not wait for all lights to go green before moving forward.” But a closer look at the project makes it clear why ‘running red lights’ is not a good public policy!
The initial Bergmann draft proposal appeared to use the State’s money (i.e. our state tax dollars) to build what we might refer to as the “Chamber-Plus” on the lakefront: a large display area for the existing history of the Finger Lakes’ panels (currently stored in the basement of the City owned “Chamber building,”) some office space for the Chamber staff, and a lake view board room.
Basically, the Bergmann plan took what existed on two levels in the Chamber building and made it a bit grander and located it in a more prominent area. But it was not clear from that plan what elements, if any, would be a new draw to the facility. In other words, the same people who stop at the Chamber now might in the future continue stop at the new location, but there was nothing to indicate that gobs of new visitors would be generated. The business plan for such a ‘Chamber-plus’ facility mirrors that contained in the Fairweather report which showed that a small scale wine tasting facility added to the existing Chamber would require heavy operational subsidies.
To be sure, in rejecting “Building 12” as presented by Bergmann, the community was flatly rejecting any notion of residential on the lakefront, and to a lesser but significant extent, protesting the size of the building—its footprint and its height. If a low-impact 'interpretive center,' without a residential component and modest in scale, had been proposed for that site, we do not think it would have drawn the same ire as the Building 12, dreamed up to subsidize the relocated Chamber of Commerce operations.
Immediately following the bungled resolution securing the $5 million earmark, the City Council rightly passed the amendments to the Masterplan that drew heavily on the action items initially suggested by Bergmann, but had been clarified to meet the community’s objectives.
As passed by Council, the plan resolves to:
- “explore the feasibility, programming, and location of an Ecological Interpretive Center on or near the lakefront (policy area 1, action item A-2)”
- “focus on tourism related activities that retain visitors downtown (policy area 1, action item E-1)”
- “create a taskforce on the programmatic elements and best location of a Visitors Center and/or Interpretive Center that will draw visitors into Geneva and provide information to enhance their experience while in the area (policy area 3, action item C-4)”
- “investigate the feasible development of an Event Center on the lakefront located adjacent to existing lodging for utilization by public and private groups (policy area 3, action item D-2);”
- “consider the development of four-season structures that would permit the enjoyment of the lakefront during winter months (policy area 4, action item C-2).”
This plan was unanimously endorsed by the planning board and supported by Council in a 7-2 vote (Greco and Alcock opposed).
Following up on the resolution, Council has formed a group of community members and agency representatives that will meet every Tuesday at 4pm in City Hall to discuss the use of the State monies within the context of the adopted plan.
It is clear, from these Master plan amendments, that the use of the money has the following parameters:
- It must be invested in a project that “will draw visitors to Geneva.” This is different than simply providing information to people who already found their way to the area.
- It might be used for an ‘Ecological Interpretive Center’ on the lakefront, but not at a location that prohibits the potential development of an ‘Event Center’ adjacent to the Ramada.
- It might be used for the development of an ‘Event Center’ adjacent to the Ramada only if the Center can be utilized by public groups and it meets criteria #1.
- It might be used for the development of four-season structures that permit public enjoyment of the lakefront, but only if it coexists with, or does not prohibit, the development of an Ecological Interpretive Center or Events Center.
- It can only be used for a ‘Visitors Center,’ in the typical Chamber-type function, if such a center coexists with one of the aforementioned projects that meet objective #1.
So, although the statements by Chamber of Commerce representatives might give the impression that the State money is to be used simply to upgrade their facilities, we find that to be an invalid assumption. Senator Nozzolio has stated plainly, on many occasions (most recently during an interview on Ted Baker’s morning radio show) that he wants the money to be used in a way that is best for Geneva, consistent with the identified goals and strategies of the newly-adopted Master plan amendments.
This means that the Council-appointed committee is free to consider dynamic ideas such as the recently discussed Finger Lakes Boating Museum, botanical gardens, a showcase conference facility, public beach and marina, and other enhancements to the lakefront that will not only provide new opportunities to residents, but draw new visitors to Geneva. Each committee meeting is open to the public and we encourage all of our readers to attend—now that things are back on track after all.