ITHACA, N.Y. (AP) - Mayor Svante Myrick says he draws heavily on life experience as he shapes public policy - which may seem odd for someone still in his 20s.
But Ithaca’s youngest-ever mayor, now 27, says his approach to the city’s budget gap, housing shortfall and even homeless population can be traced to a childhood that began in a shelter and ended in the Ivy League.
“There’s a lot of lessons, if you’re paying attention,” said Myrick, reflecting on the first half of his term during a walk around the Finger Lakes city of 30,000.
Since taking office in 2012, Myrick has been the face of the city that is home to his alma mater, Cornell University, and has been listed by various publications among the nation’s “most enlightened cities,” ”smartest places to live” and “best cities for hippies.”
But its independent streak and the colleges that fuel it also have translated to more tangible successes, such as the state’s lowest unemployment rate, 3.5 percent, population gains and new high-tech jobs supported by incubators and venture capitalists. Myrick has pushed these trends with business friendly zoning changes meant to enable denser development and more much-needed housing.
“We have this naturally occurring entrepreneurial ecosystem that’s the result of students and graduate students and faculty wanting to stay here, and we’re partnering it now with an infrastructure,” said Myrick, who first arrived at City Hall as a council member at 19 and continues to take a bus there. (He turned his parking space into a tiny public park.)
For all the city’s forward thinking, Myrick said he has fallen back on old-fashioned church and family roots for solutions to universal problems.
Recalling how the church helped his single mother and her four children get out of a shelter, Myrick asked religious leaders to help dismantle an 80-year-old homeless enclave known as “the jungle” and take over operation of a rescue mission.
When faced with a $3 million budget gap, Myrick essentially bared the city’s pocketbook to departments and gave them a say in the job shifting and early retirements that avoided layoffs and a potential 15 percent tax increase.
“It was just like being 11 years old again, saying, ‘OK, I’m not getting the shoes that I wanted, my sister’s not getting the clothes that she wants and my brother’s not going on the field trip,’” he said. “‘But we all get to keep the lights on.’”
A notable snag in his term has been the resistance by Cornell, which does not pay property taxes, to increase its contribution to the city’s coffers. After Myrick in October called its contributions “shameful,” the university shot back, saying Cornell helps provides 10,000 jobs and cultural diversity to the city and expects to contribute more than $3.2 million this fiscal year, comparable to what other colleges pay.
“Negotiations in public are rarely helpful. Demands are often counter-productive,” spokesman John Carberry said.
A Democrat who won his party’s nomination in a three-way primary, Myrick says he hasn’t thought about higher office despite having a profile elevated by a recent guest appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Even as a child receiving food stamps, he recalls getting into debates with classmates over whether government should provide food so that hungry students could learn or let them drop out and wind up on public assistance long-term.
“Once you start talking about it, you can’t stop,” Myrick said.
Inside a downtown gift shop, manager Elana Maragni says the mayor is “everywhere all the time.”
“I think he just works harder at connecting with the people. He does social media, which is nice,” she said.
“Our mayor allows people to see things differently because he sees them differently. He’s not OK with the status quo,” said Darlynne Overbaugh, who opened a candy shop in town after winning a city “Race for Space” contest that paid her rent for a year.
Among other undertakings, Myrick made the city a living wage employer that pays $12.62 an hour with benefits, and he revamped the city’s sidewalks to align maintenance costs with use, even as the novelty of his youth has worn off.
“Because of my age, (voters) thought I was some prodigy. I wasn’t,” said Myrick. “But I used that to gain credibility.”
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