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City getting $50K from state to help run downtown Auburn welcome center

Auburn will receive $50,000 from the state to put toward the operations costs of the $10 million Equal Rights Cultural Heritage Center, Mayor Michael Quill announced Tuesday. 

According to a press release from the city, state Sen. Pamela Helming, R-Canandaigua, secured the money for the city in the recently adopted state budget. 

"We would like to thank Senator Helming for her partnership on this project," Quill said in a statement. "For the past year and a half the senator has been working diligently to advocate at the state level for this and many projects of interest to the city of Auburn. We are confident this project will drive tourism business for Auburn, Cayuga County and the Central/Finger Lakes Region and thanks to the senator’s support we are certain to have success."

City Clerk Chuck Mason said the money will be used to offset the nearly $147,400 the city preliminarily budgeted for the operation of the visitor center, which includes the cost of staffing, utilities and supplies. Mason said the funding will only be for this fiscal year, but the city will continue to work with Helming in the future to secure additional funds. In a statement to The Citizen, Helming said she plans to advocate for the funds in the state budget on the city's behalf every year. 

"It was great to work with Mayor Quill and the Auburn City Council to advocate for this important funding," Helming said. "Working together, we were able to secure critical resources that will help further local job creation and drive tourism. From Harriet Tubman to ... Seward, Auburn has a rich history that we can all be proud of.

"Preserving and sharing this history with tourists and local residents alike is key to the future success of our region," Helming added. "I thank Mayor Quill for his continued partnership on this issue, and I look forward to seeing the finished product." 

Executive Director of the Auburn Downtown Business Improvement District Stephanie DeVito, who is slated to oversee the center's operations, and Meg Vanek, the executive director of the Cayuga County Office of Tourism, both thanked Helming for her support.  

"The new center will provide an economic boost to Auburn’s downtown and our number one goal is to attract visitors to downtown and keep them here, staying in our hotels and dining and shopping at our local shops and restaurants," DeVito said. 

Vanek added that she appreciates Helming's "commitment to growing our local, regional and statewide tourism industry by helping to promote our attractions, food and beverage producers and particularly our equal rights heritage destinations" and mentioned that tourism has generated over $100 million in visitor spending in the county. 

Construction of the visitor center began in February and is being funded by a $10 million grant from the state as part of the state's Upstate Revitalization Initiative program. Once completed, it will include a Taste NY market and interactive exhibits promoting historic and cultural sites in Auburn, Cayuga County and the central New York region. The center is scheduled to open in October. The center will also house the county tourism, BID and the Auburn Historic and Cultural Sites Commission offices.

Kevin Rivoli / The Citizen file  

Work progresses on the Equal Rights Cultural Heritage Center in downtown Auburn.

Not 'just some old building': Auburn's Osborne Library could face demolition if not repaired

AUBURN — A library that was once part of one of Auburn's most well-known families' home has been sitting vacant for over 20 years and although plans to save the historic building have been proposed in the past, none have come to fruition. Now, the library that was once home to Thomas Mott Osborne and his family is in danger of being demolished. 

The Osborne Library, which was built in 1910 and is located at 3 Fitch Ave., was added to the Auburn Fire Department's vacant building registry in 2017. A large white X on a red background is posted on two of the library's doors, signaling the structure has significant safety concerns. On Jan. 31, the city of Auburn's code enforcement department placed a demolish or repair order on the building, indicating the property owner — the Osborne Center for Social Justice — had 30 days to bring the building up to code, "as is reasonable." However, it is going to take longer than 30 days, and possibly millions of dollars, to restore the building to its former glory. 

Structural engineer Joe Kime, of Beardsley Architects and Engineers, said Tuesday during the Auburn Historic Resources Review Board meeting that the biggest problem with the building is that the roof has "completely failed." 

In 2014, the building was owned by the Auburn United Methodist Church, who presented plans to the board to stabilize the roof. The church received a grant from the state Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Office in the early 2000s to repair the roof. The board approved the plans, however, no work was ever done on the building. 

Kime said the building's concrete roof is being supported by steel beams. Back in 2014, the plan was to "put cribbing on top of those steel beams and then build a new roof on top of that and then entomb the concrete roof deck," Kime said, but, that is no longer possible as a large section of the roof has since collapsed.  

"Once you lose the roof, you're off to the races," Kime said. "It exponentially deteriorates from there, although the building has (held up) phenomenally for its age and neglect. It's really an incredible structure."

Additionally, Kime said water has gotten into the walls of the brick structure. In order to salvage the building now, the roof deck would need to be removed, which he said would be complicated and expensive.  

"You can feasibly save almost anything, but you need resources and money," Kime said. "I'm not saying it's a complete write off, but it's headed in the wrong direction rapidly right now." 

The church sold the 2,700 square-foot library in September 2015 to the social justice center for $11, according to Cayuga County Real Property Records. According to its website, the social justice center does have plans to rehabilitate the structure and use it as an educational facility where people can learn more about Auburn's role in the prison reform and women's rights movements.

Director of Capital Projects and Grants Christina Selvek said the city has not received any communication from the property owner James Loperfido, who is the social justice center's chair, since issuing the demolish or repair order. Board member Ed Onori said he spoke with Loperfido, who claims he never received notice of the demolish or repair order. 

Multiple board members said they hope to see the building restored, but acknowledged it will be an expensive and difficult endeavor. 

"This isn't just some old building," board member Linda Frank said. "This is a truly historic building and I would hate to see it (be demolished)."  

Selvek said the city will send Loperfido another notice and work with him to develop a plan to restore the building before the city takes action to have the building demolished. She said she will reach out to the owner and encourage him to come to the next board meeting to discuss any plans. 

'Future to be determined': Board weighs options for Auburn geospatial technology institute

The Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology at Cayuga Community College in Auburn has no staff, no working website and is lapsed in its charitable status. The institute's board, however, says it's working toward the best solution for its future, though members are foggy on what that exactly means. 

The approximately 15-year-old organization began as a nonprofit, focusing on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology under the leadership of former president Bob Brower. Brower retired from the post in August, leaving a six-member board, mostly made up of CCC staff plus two vacancies, to man the helm. 

Some community members and local lawmakers are panicked with the ambiguity of the institute's future, and are worried that the program, which had partnerships with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies, could disappear.

CCC President Brian Durant, who is also the chair of the IAGT board, said the board is completing its due diligence at this time, and could have more definitive next steps by this summer.

"I just think the highlights for me continue to be that we know there's a number of supporters in the community for the institute," Durant said in a March interview with The Citizen. "We take it as seriously as everyone else does. I know people are curious, and we're trying to be as open and responsive as possible, but you know, it's at a point in its time and its history where a good thorough review needs to be done, and you know, a future to be determined."

With no funding stream to support the institute at this time, Durant said the board is looking at potential partners in the geospatial technology field. While CCC does have its own GIS program, Durant added that the college is not in a position to fund the institute, nor would it be appropriate. 

Linda Van Buskirk, chair of the college's board of trustees and ex-officio member of the IAGT board, said Durant has explored potentially expanding the institute regionally or consolidating it. She said the institute cannot live on past grant funding expended nearly 20 years ago.

"Things were built, but you know, it's decades ago now, and that's reality," she said. "That's reality, and what was, what could operate 20 years ago perhaps can no longer operate now, and we have to move forward. The whole message is moving forward in the best way possible. ... Under Brian Durant's direction and with his help, IAGT will move forward in the best way possible."

Gary Knapp of Fiscal Development LLC is one community member interested in the institute's fate. He told The Citizen that GIS technology is a global problem-solving tool, and he believes there are many ways the institute can be revived. He's developed a campaign called "Save the IAGT," which he's promoted to county legislators and the county's public utility service agency. Knapp has also called on the IAGT board to convene an open meeting, which has not happened.

"We remain focused on the effort at causing a reorganization of the not-for-profit entity so it can stand up and repair itself and its relations with NASA, and become a regional application center, and get on with doing good research work at a time when there's a lot of money available to address the issues and the challenges at hand," he said. 

County Legislator Tim Lattimore also continues to push for the institute's revival. It was one of his campaign issues when he ran for reelection last year. While the institute is a separate entity from CCC, it is housed at the Auburn campus, and Lattimore said he thinks IAGT could help boost enrollment.

"You just don't get a federal platform every day, and to let it go would be a major mistake," he told The Citizen in August.

IAGT board member Barry Evans, who is a research associate at Penn State's Earth & Environmental Systems Institute, said funding for these organizations is actually quite difficult to get.

"I think they (IAGT) were unusual in that there weren't too many facilities like that, not only around the state but the country, but it is the type of institute where it's difficult to get funding, more difficult now than it used to be because most of it was from the government, state and federal," Evans said. "Their funding has decreased over the years to support an institute. I just know that because I work in the area, and I know it's a lot more difficult to get funding for that type of activity than it used to be because it has an environmental bend to it."

Evans, one of the non-CCC board members, said he does not plan to stay on much longer. He's retiring soon, and he feels most of the decision making in IAGT's future should be in the hands of the CCC staff who are in the same location. 

Durant said he plans to continue serving as chair, and the IAGT's charitable status is in the process of being regained. The board typically meets every six months, and is looking to meet in the next one or two months to review its research on moving forward. 

"Ultimately I appreciate that there are a number of community members that have shared possibilities and ideas, and we appreciate the creativity, and we certainly, I think have had some openness to explore those ideas," he added. "We're at a point where resources really need to be secured in order to be able to invest, and the appropriate personnel, to even take those next steps to explore those possibilities."

Skaneateles school board approves 3.75-percent tax increase, advances security plans

SKANEATELES — The Skaneateles Central School District Board of Education furthered some budget and security decisions Tuesday.

The board approved presenting a 3.75-percent tax levy increase to residents for the budget vote in May. The district's tax cap given by the state is 4.44 percent.

The district's budget under this model includes a $60,000 allocation for a salary of a retired police officer to be a school resource officer. This would be a base pay of $50,000 plus fringe benefits and materials. This would also require the district to get a waiver from the state for anyone in the state's retirement system to net more than $30,000 a year. An active duty officer would cost $55,000 plus benefits, materials and supplies for a total of $75,000.

Cuts that would be included under that 3.75-percent levy increase are one high school program support staff member, one administrative support position and one custodial staff position, plus BOCES instructional and instructional technology support services, stipended positions for additional work, reductions in the district's materials and supplies budget, and equipment budget.

The district showed the board different tax levy boosts, including 2.75 and 3.25 percent — which would have included further cuts, including one teacher under both scenarios — and a 4-percent levy raise, which would entail no cuts and restore portions of the materials and supplies budget and equipment budget. 

The board also approved the creation of an advisory committee that would give the district recommendations regarding a potential student resource officer, including whether the person would be retired or an active duty officer. District Superintendent Ken Slentz previously said the committee will ideally include students and other community members, and would help create a "job description" for the spot, including how the officer would dress and interact with students.

The board also opted to decide at a special session scheduled for Thursday on an armed interim guard. Slentz said after the meeting that a retired officer has been chosen and the officer's name will be revealed at the meeting. The salary would be a hourly rate through the end of the school year, at $11,000, after salary negotiations with the candidate and if the board approves it.