AUBURN — The new regional welcome center planned for downtown Auburn will be named the Equal Rights Heritage Center, and it will be built and ready for tourists in the fall of 2018. 

Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Rose Harvey, commissioner of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, visited Auburn Friday to make that announcement alongside city officials and provide additional updates about the project.

Hochul said the state has awarded $10 million to the city to construct the heritage center, which will be built at 25 South St., the current site of a public parking lot. Crews conducted exploratory drilling for the project in the spring and initial designs of the center were released in May. 

The firm tasked with the designs, nArchitects, collected feedback from local residents to make architectural changes to the plans. Those changes were displayed at Hochul's announcement Friday.

The new 7,500-square-foot facility will consist of a one-story structure and an outdoor recreation area. The interior will have three main components: an I Love NY Equal Rights Heritage Tourism Promotion Center, a Taste NY market and a local tourism promotion center that highlights the city, the county and the region. 

"We're here to celebrate ... that there is no better place in America to honor equal rights than this place right here," Hochul said Friday. "You have something really unique here. This downtown is really spectacular and I feel (this center) will take it to a whole new level." 

Meg Vanek, the executive director at the Cayuga County Office of Tourism. said visitors spent over $100 million in the county in 2016 — that's a 3.7-percent increase from 2015. 

"This is a great time for tourism in Cayuga County," she said. "It's the best time ... and it's time to enhance our visitor services." 

Auburn City Clerk Chuck Mason said the governor's $10 million award will fully fund the building's construction as well as the reconstruction of nearby streets and upgrades to the downtown parking garage; however, after construction, the city will inherit the cost of maintaining and operating the building. Mason estimated that will cost the city approximately $100,000 per year. 

Some of that cost may be alleviated by two permanent tenants lined up for the center, the Auburn Downtown Business Improvement District and the Cayuga County Office of Tourism. Those organizations are currently located at 128 and 131 Genesee St., but will be moving to the welcome center once construction is complete. The facility will also house the office of the Auburn Historic & Cultural Sites Commission. 

Officials said on Friday that the plan is to begin construction by March 2018 and finish by the fall of 2018. 

"Sitting at the crossroads of central New York and the Finger Lakes, Auburn has played a unique role in New York State history as people and ideas traveled across the state," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a press release. "The new Equal Rights Heritage Center will pay tribute to their efforts and the sacrifices of the many who sought equality while encouraging travelers to visit all that this region has to offer." 

The project has generated some opposition since the site was announced, especially from people concerned about the loss of parking spaces from an area so close to institutions such as the Auburn YMCA, Seward House Museum and Auburn Public Theater.

Auburn resident Sally Price attended Friday's event in the parking lot at 25 South St. Friday afternoon. She held a sign that read "Not Here" to protest the proposed location of the facility. 

"I am absolutely in favor of the welcome center, but I am absolutely opposed to the site of the welcome center," Price said. "I think there are other underutilized parcels in Auburn that could have benefited from being upgraded to the welcome center. This parking lot is filled every day of the week ... and I just think there were better places to put it."

Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr. 

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