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Colleges Help Ithaca Thrive in a Region of Struggles

What most sets this city of 30,000 apart from many of its neighbors these days is what is absent: fear for its future.
Led by a young mayor with an inspiring back story and an idealist’s approach — he talks about sidewalks in philosophical terms — Ithaca is the upstate exception: a successful liberal enclave in a largely conservative region troubled by unemployment woes, declining or stagnant population, and post-Detroit talk of bankruptcy.
“It’s like a little San Francisco,” Nicole Roulstin, 32, an Ithaca resident, said recently, “or the Berkeley of the East.”
Much of that optimism comes from a reciprocal relationship with two institutions — Cornell University and, to a lesser degree, Ithaca College — which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy and created thousands of jobs for everyone from professors to landscapers, and also fostered new companies. Ithaca and its home county, Tompkins, regularly post the lowest unemployment rate in the state. In June, Ithaca’s was 5.7 percent, tied with another college city, Saratoga Springs, where a racetrack drives an annual summer boom.
Ithaca’s model of education as an economic engine is one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made a priority this year as a strategy for all of upstate, where there are dozens of universities. In June, he signed a bill that would allow State University of New York branches and some private schools to offer tax-free zones for new businesses that open on or adjacent to campuses.
Ithaca’s mayor, Svante L. Myrick, who was invited to speak alongside the governor when he promoted the plan in May, playfully challenged other leaders of Ivy League cities in the Northeast to come to his. “And I’ll show you how we built in Ithaca the lowest unemployment rate in the state,” he said, adding that the city had been successful “because our universities have partnered with our private industries,” and did not just rely on businesses selling “sandwiches and beds” to visitors and students.
Ithaca has used the deep intellectual bench of its neighboring colleges and community entrepreneurs to help create everything from skateboard companies to high-tech start-ups, an approach to job creation that has attracted the admiration of nearby municipalities.
“They’ve been able to cross over the barrier from nonprofit and transition into a for-profit entrepreneurial model, which is not an easy task,” said Stephanie A. Miner, the mayor of Syracuse, about 45 miles to the north. “We’ve done it as well, but we don’t have the kind of penetration that Ithaca has.”

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