Welcome Center Sept. 5

Work continues on the Equal Rights Heritage Center Wednesday in downtown Auburn. 

AUBURN — With an opening date set for the end of October, city and state officials gathered at Auburn Public Theater Wednesday morning to give the public an update on the progress of the Equal Rights Heritage Center. 

According to Auburn City Clerk Chuck Mason, construction is still on schedule, despite some rainy weather in August. He said workers are in the process of finishing the roof and masonry work, which should take about a week and a half to complete. The floors are also being installed and plumbers and electricians are inside laying pipes and wires. Crews are also getting started on landscaping the grounds. 

Most of the interior work needs to be completed by the end of September so the exhibition contractor, Hadley Exhibits Inc. from Buffalo, can begin to install the exhibits. That will take about three weeks, Mason said.  

One of the primary design goals for the center, nArchitects senior associate Amanda Morgan said, was to draw visitors to other sites in Auburn. The center's large windows frame the city's surrounding historic buildings, including the Seward House, Westminster Church and Memorial City Hall. 

The center is made up of four "volumes," or buildings, all connected, Morgan said. The first volume, which is the smallest, will act as the entry vestibule and will include visitor information and a large map of the city. The middle two structures will house local and regional exhibits, guest services, restrooms and the Taste NY market. The last volume, the one closest to William Street, will house the offices of the Auburn Downtown Business Improvement District and Cayuga County Tourism Office

Julian Adams, the director of community preservation services for the state Office of Historic Preservation, said another goal of the center was to "be a good neighbor" to the existing buildings. The designers wanted the center to fit in comfortably to the surrounding architecture without vanishing. 

"Every piece of architecture that was ever built, at one time, was modern," Adams said, noting that elements of the center, such as masonry work and windows, reflect surrounding historic buildings. 

Adams said the history of Auburn and the Central New York region — such as its role in the equal rights and suffrage movements and the Underground Railroad — serve as the perfect backdrop to build the Equal Rights Heritage Center. 

The center's South Street site, which many people think of as only a former parking lot, was once the home of Auburn's chapter of the Women's Education and Industrial Union, which was founded in the late 1870s by one of the country's first female doctors, he said. 

"We have so many things in this area to celebrate and also to teach other people with about human rights and civil rights," Adams said. "This is the place to do it, right here in Auburn. And I firmly believe that." 

Officials believe the center will be a big draw for tourists. Tourism is a multi-million-dollar industry in Cayuga County. According to 2017 statistics provided by ILoveNY, tourism brings over $200 million into the county annually and provides about 2,800 jobs. Taxes collected as a result of tourism provide a $418 tax relief for each Cayuga County household. 

"Tourism is an export," Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tracy Verrier said. "It's people coming in, spending money that is not generated here. It's generating wealth in our community. It's not just us circulating our own money in the community, this is new money coming into the community."

The idea of a welcome center in Auburn is not new. When the city's Historic and Cultural Sites Commission was formed over 20 years ago, one of its original goals was to build a welcome center. In 2016, the city included a proposal for a downtown welcome center in its Downtown Revitalization Initiative application. Auburn didn't win the DRI that year, but the day after Oswego was announced the winner, Gov. Cuomo personally called Mayor Michael Quill to talk about what the city had proposed in its application. 

The $10 million center is being funded through the state's Upstate Revitalization Initiative. The Central New York region received $500 million through the URI in 2015 for "transformative, economic development projects," Verrier said. 

Quill emphasized that the $10 million the city received from the state was to be used specifically to build the Equal Rights Heritage Center — not to combat harmful algal blooms on Owasco Lake, for example. 

"There's a misconception in our community that the $10 million that is building our heritage center was for anything the city of Auburn wanted to do with it," Quill said. "That is not the case. The governor said specifically that he wanted a heritage center built." 

Quill added that the state is providing other resources and funding to the community for water-quality improvement projects. Owasco, Cayuga and Skaneateles lakes were included in Cuomo's $65 million initiative to fight HABs in New York's lakes. 

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Staff writer Natalie Brophy can be reached at (315)282-2239 or natalie.brophy@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @brophy_natalie