Ithaca Mayor cites city’s strong business sector as one secret to its success
Millennial Mayor Svante Myrick believes his upstate New York community thrives when public and private sectors can reach their full potential.
While his Cornell classmates were busy making post-graduate plans, Svante Myrick was busy representing his constituents as a member of Ithaca’s city council. At age 20, he was a junior in college when he won his seat on the upstate New York community’s governing body. Four years later, the Ivy League graduate was running the whole town.
Now in his second term, Myrick is a seasoned leader. Ithaca’s youngest, as well as its first African-American, mayor has focused much of his energy on large infrastructure projects—such as the revitalization of downtown’s Ithaca Commons—affordable housing, and innovative approaches to battling the region’s opioid crisis.
We spoke with Myrick recently about what makes Ithaca special, his kinship with another young mayor who’s now running for president, and how his upbringing and his family’s bouts with homelessness has influenced his approach to governing.
Here’s our brief Q&A with the mayor, edited for length and clarity. Follow him on Twitter @SvanteMyrick.
THE RENEWAL PROJECT: First off mayor, tell us about the recent “Kids Taking Action” series where you were the guest of honor. How do you teach little kids about civic engagement?
MAYOR SVANTE MYRICK: So you don’t start with the Electoral College when you’re talking to 7 and 8 year-olds. You start with showing them that their opinion matters. Their opinion about the way the world works counts. You try to demonstrate to them that when they grow up, their opinion is going to matter in very serious ways, when they get a chance to vote and run for office.
It’s about demonstrating to young people that they have power, before they can be told by the world the opposite. And so we started with bringing them into the (local) Board of Elections, showing them how the voting machines work, we even put together ballots that let them vote on things like what’s their favorite ice cream flavor, and the winning ice cream flavors were the ones we had for their next meeting. So they got to see, oh wow, I voted for mint chocolate chip and that’s what we got. They got to connect cause and effect in their minds which is really cool.
What was the most surprising or funniest thing you learned from the kids?
I’ve always believed that young people have such moral authority, and when I speak with the kids about half the questions are always things like what’s your dog’s name and what’s your favorite baseball team, but then the other half of the questions are, why are there still poor people? And why don’t we take better care of our environment?
So those kinds of cutting questions—it’s not just clarity, a real moral authority shines through and it’s something I think is badly missing in our broader politics.
What is the job that best prepared you for being mayor?
Probably babysitting. There’s a lot of conflict management, personality management. In babysitting you walk into a room and there’ll be three kids crying and one broken toy in between them, and you have to figure out what happened, and how can we get everybody playing together again. That’s what it’s like to manage 500 employees and 10 common council members. I spend a lot of my time saying it’s not important who broke the toy, let’s see if we can shake hands and play together again.
What surprised you the most about the job once you took office?
How all-encompassing it is. It becomes more than just your work, it becomes your identity. That’s both good and bad. Little kids in my town know my name and they shout Mayor walking across the street. There’s nothing better than that. Mayor becomes your first name. It becomes your first identity. Before I think about myself, my own personal business, I’m thinking about the city’s business.
Understanding how a healthy thriving private sector—and small businesses in particular, that pay well and treat their employees with dignity—are so important to our success here.
I read recently about some new small businesses opening in the area. What’s the role of small businesses—any business—in helping to move Ithaca forward?
There’s a few things that you absolutely need to have a thriving city: You need clean water, you need public safety, and you need a private sector that is active and thriving. I found that when I was very young, when I was growing up, we were poor, moving in and out of homelessness. We were supported by philanthropy and government programs—that kept us afloat.
But the thing that really started to change our lives and change our fortunes, all us kids, the four of us started to work when we got to be 13 and 14 years old. Understanding how a healthy thriving private sector—and small businesses in particular, that pay well and treat their employees with dignity—are so important to our success here.
What’s your next big goal as mayor?
We’ve got so many cool things in the works. We’re trying to increase our civic engagement by offering free child care at all city meetings so that young parents can come out and participate and not worry about it.
We’re trying to revitalize our waterfront. We just completed our waterfront trail. We’re looking forward to a big round of private investment from our hospitals and a couple of housing providers.
And we’re trying to end the overdose crisis here in Ithaca. We’ve got a number of very innovative programs that have resulted in a year over year decline of overdoses of 20 percent. We adopted the plan in 2016, and in 2017 to 2018 overdoses have been down 20 percent, which is not the national trend.
Is there another mayor who inspires you or other cities that you look to for inspiration?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg and I have always had a kinship—we were the two youngest mayors in the U.S. Conference of Mayors. I tease him, he’s much older than me, he’s five years older. I tease him about when he can get social security … to see the success he’s had running for president, it’s just amazing.
There are a lot of great mayors. Nan Whaley from Dayton, Ohio. Kathy Sheehan from Albany (New York) is somebody I look up to. Michael Tubbs of Stockton (California) is a good friend. There’s something of a community of mayors for sure.
What’s your city’s most underutilized resource?
This sounds funny, one of the things that makes Ithaca unique is our colleges; we have three colleges here. We’re actually one of the most educated cities in the country, with more degrees and advanced degrees per person.
Even given that, I think our most underutilized resource is our people. I think there are a lot of people in town who either spend all their time on campuses, accumulating an enormous amount of knowledge, or have lived on south side, where I live, their entire lives and have never even been on campus. In both cases they haven’t been asked to contribute civically.
What’s your favorite place in town to hang out when you’re not performing your official duties?
There’s so many.
Ithaca Beer Company—wait, I forgot it’s just outside city lines. If I just say that I’m going to get in trouble. Their beer is starting to be distributed all over the country.
The Watershed is an excellent little bar that’s really on the cutting edge of nightlife safety. A bar standard training that reduces sexual assault helps patrons and bartenders create a healthier relationship. And it just creates a good feeling all the way through.
Tell me about your town. What are a few nonprofits solving problems for your residents?
REACH, which is a harm reduction service that deals with folks struggling with substance abuse disorders. They do these amazing wraparound services, from getting them prescription medication to psychological treatment to even just primary care, folks who haven’t seen a primary care physician. They are helping us turn the tide in the opiate epidemic.
I think the largest problem in Ithaca is the high cost of housing here. And so Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services is really doing the Lord’s work and creating permanently affordable housing both for ownership and rental.
Name three words to describe your town.
Well the first one’s gotta be gorgeous—that’s a play on words. It’s the most beautiful city in America and it also has three gorges that run through town. It results in these waterfalls. You can be in a bad mood as you walk into work but as you walk along the waterfalls your mood changes as you go to get coffee and there’s a creek running past the coffee shop. A lot of our bumper stickers say Ithaca is gorgeous. So that’s the first one.
We’re also odd. The other bumper sticker we have Ithaca is 10 square miles surrounded by reality.
And progressive. We’re always looking to do better. We have the strongest economy in upstate New York. We’ve had the fastest growing employment base almost every single quarter for the last five years.
OK here’s the lightning round. First job?
Window washing. S&S window washers. “We won’t be a pane in your glass.” This is with my friend, we were 11 years old. And “pane” was spelled “p-a-n-e.” We were proud of that.
1990 Volkswagen Passat. I bought it for $500.
Favorite subject in high school?
Last great book that you read?
Can I give you two? Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I thought I knew the story … really moving. And The White Knight which is a new Batman story about the Joker. It’s pretty cool.