City of Cortland officials entertained a discussion Tuesday (September 7th) on a potential plan to allow the YWCA and the Cortland County Community Action Program (CAPCO) to provide an early childhood education center for children in the area.
Officials approved of the proposal, but were generally cautious of the financials of the project.
The center would be located at the Alton B. Parker Elementary School site, which shut its doors to students in 2017, when the Cortland Enlarged City School District (CESCD) consolidated school facilities.
At the city’s Common Council meeting last week, mayor Brian Tobin noted the childhood education center would offer daycare services, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start programs through organizations like the local YWCA and CAPCO. These programs would service children up to the age of five, Tobin said.
Currently, the YWCA has its own daycare program, while CAPCO provides Head Start and Early Head Start services in Cortland, the town and village of Homer, and Cortlandville.
Proposals for the project were set in motion in 2019, when a group of stakeholders from CECSD Board of Education, the county legislature, city council, and other volunteers formed a taskforce to decide the future of the shuttered Parker building. Last year, voters approved the city’s purchase of the building for $91 via a referendum.
The childcare center would not expand services beyond the offerings the city had before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the health and safety regulations that came with it. Childcare services, according to Tobin, were reduced during the pandemic, and the childhood education center would bring back the number of services to pre-pandemic times.
Tobin said the building has already had some lighting and roofing work done, but that the city has at least $1.3 million in its coffers to continue aiding renovations.
Former Democratic assemblywoman Barbara Lifton secured $1.1 million of those funds, while the city also received $200,000 from a grant from the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council.
“We are talking about a large vacant structure in the heart of a residential area,” Tobin said, noting the city has invested in its youth, alluding to other investments in the neighboring area like the $2 million in renovations and upgrades pumped into Suggett Park. “We are doing some wonderful things to make our parks attractive, and to make it really enjoyable to live in the city of Cortland. With a large structure like that, this is an opportunity to do something for the children and continue to build on the momentum that we have.”
The long term vision for the city’s involvement with the project, Tobin said, is to be a facilitator. The city can aid the YWCA and CAPCO in requesting grants, he added, noting that the organizations themselves would not be able to seek funding through grants directly since a lot of financial aid is disbursed to government organizations.
“The long term vision would be for the city not to be the landlord business of the property, but to help in terms of guidance and managing the property,” Tobin said. “The city would make sure the property is converted properly, and that the organizations are able to use the funds in the best possible way to keep the center of the city strong.”
While Tobin mentioned administrators at CESD, and CAPCO and YWCA executives are ready to move forward with a request for proposals for engineering and architectural improvements on the site, council members offered some reservations.
“I don’t even want to entertain this thought this year,” said deputy mayor John Bennett, who represents the city’s fourth ward.
Bennett expressed concerns about the mayor’s expiring term, as well as the possibility of having an all-new governing body by year’s end. He said every project has unforeseen costs and grants — while helpful — require a matching amount from the city.
“There is always something that happens. There is always some additional cost. I don’t think it is the responsibility of this council to put a (potentially new council and mayor) in a possibly unforeseen debt,” Bennett said. “I do not think we should continue with this discussion this year at all. I have no energy for this.”
Bennett also noted he is worried about a potential conflict of interest given that YWCA executive director Kelly Tobin is married to mayor Tobin.
The mayor has been legally cleared of a potential conflict of interest regarding the project, according to Bennett. The deputy mayor said, however, that the conflict of interest discussion would not influence his decision to table the project until a new city administration is installed in the next election cycle.
“My other concern is, even though the mayor has been told legally there isn’t a conflict of interest… I do disagree,” Bennett said. “I think this is a conflict of interest.”
Councilperson Bruce Tytler said he would like to move the project forward, but would like to see more specifics on the financial side of things.
“The folks I talked to about this, before everything got shut down by the pandemic, they were concerned that the city would be on the hook for x-amount million dollars down the line,” said Tytler, who represents the third ward in the city. “If they could be assured (that the city wouldn’t be in financial trouble), people would be in support of moving forward.”
Councilperson Jacki Chapman, who represents the fifth ward in the city, showed support for the project, adding new childcare options would be attractive to young families.
“These last two years of council sessions were about the improvement of Cortland to be able to draw young families,” Chapman said. “This facility would draw young professionals.”
The council will revisit action on the proposal at its meeting on Sept. 21.