Getting $10 million from the state to invest in a new building devoted to tourism development is a big deal, so Auburn and Cayuga County leaders have been understandably excited to talk about the Equal Rights Heritage Center under construction in the city's downtown.
But something they've not discussed too much publicly — something that was not part of any press release or ceremony announcing the project — is that operating and maintaining this new building will be the responsibility of the city of Auburn. With the release of the tentative city budget for its 2018-19 fiscal year, we now have a monetary figure attached to that responsibility: $147,365.
That's not a small number. Just consider the city's proposed tax levy increase of 5 percent, which is over the state cap. That percentage increase represents about $560,000. The new welcome center preliminary budget, all new spending for the city, accounts for roughly a quarter of that tax levy hike.
Now there are some key revenue offsets, at least in this first year of the center's operation. About $15,000 in rent is expected from the Downtown Auburn Business Improvement District and the Cayuga County Office of Tourism, which will be tenants.
Auburn will receive $50,000 from the state to put toward the operations costs of the $10 million Equal Rights Cultural Heritage Center, Mayor …
In addition, state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, and city officials worked together to secure $50,000 from the state to put toward operating costs. Kudos to all involved in the bipartisan working relationship that got these funds worked into the state budget.
But even with these offsets, city taxpayers are still looking at $82,000 in new spending from this facility.
That does not mean this project is going to be a waste of taxpayer money. As proponents of the Equal Rights Heritage Center have pointed out, this building can be a boost for the region's economy if it's designed, marketed and operated well.
But as the city looks not just at this year's budget but the long-term future for this new asset, leaders must also figure out some tangible ways to measure the impact. Data on visitors to the center — how many, where they are coming from, where they will visit, what they will spend — needs to be collected and analyzed. And the numbers need to be transparent to the public.
If that type of information is gathered, city leaders will be in a much better position to assess how this welcome center will operate going forward. They may need to trim (or add) staffing resources. They may need to ask for more (or less) support from the state. But whatever the case, it's vital that the evolution of this welcome center is based on solid facts and figures, not theories about whether or not it's actually making a positive difference.
The Citizen Editorial Board includes publisher Rob Forcey, managing editor Mike Dowd and executive editor Jeremy Boyer.