ANOTHER STEP IN A COMPLEX DANCE

FRED LEBRUN COMMENTARY
Section: Capital Region,  Page: D1

Date: Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's so easy to become cynical about the future of the Albany Convention Center.


After all, 16 years later and where are we?


Seemingly not much further along than when Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings came up with this terrific idea and started promoting it vigorously. That was back when Mario Cuomo was our governor. We've had three governors since. Fittingly, it would seem that another Cuomo is headed for the Executive Mansion, just before a convention center is likely to turn from a long-term vision into a bricks and mortar reality. I will take that as a sign, a good omen for the project.


Because the truth is we've come a long way with the convention center, even though it wasn't in a straight line, and wasn't always positive. But overall, what was an inspired notion in 1994 is only looking better and better in these otherwise bleak economic times, for the city and for the state.


Yes, the state. Consider this: Only a handful of state capitals are as poorly equipped as Albany to host conventions and offer large-scale meeting spaces. None of the others is in what would be considered a major state. I wonder, do we consider ourselves a major state anymore?


So a first-rate convention center and hotel with easy access to the Capitol, Empire State Plaza, the Legislature and government agencies, is of great advantage to the state and citizens doing business with the state. This can't be emphasized enough, and ultimately ought to be the persuasive argument for the state's approval of the convention center's financial plan and for subsidizing the operation to the tune of about $9 million a year once it's built. That will partially cover the annual cost of $160 million in bonds the authority will issue for construction.


That's next, and vital. Namely, state approval of the financial plan and the release of more funds from a $75 million grant approved in the George Pataki administration when the Albany Convention Center Authority was created, That money would finish land acquisition, design work and an archaeological study. The project still hinges on state approval, whether from this governor or the next. About $63 million remains from the Pataki grant. If released and combined with the bonds, it will pay for all construction. That's the plan.


Friday's announcement, after years of baby steps, of the acquisition of 38 parcels totaling 3 acres from Bill Bantz's City Square Associates was a great leap forward. The negotiated price was $5.9 million. That leaves about two acres, primarily owned by Omni development, to acquire and Authority chairman Gavin Donohue says preliminary discussions have started.


With the Bantz acquisitions, the authority can begin assessing serious interest in building the hotel because it now owns the land designated for it. The privately owned hotel would be across the street from the 60,000-square-foot convention center.


Not too long ago, it appeared the Albany Convention Center idea was at a dead end. Government had lost interest in supporting it because, among other reasons, the price tag had gotten too high. But a brilliant decision was made to separate the hotel from the convention center.


With the authority no longer becoming a hotel owner, and thus not competing with other hotel owners, the convention center suddenly got a lot more support from that key segment of area business. The very same hotel owners who justifiably griped that a county hotel tax meant they would be subsidizing a competing, government-run hotel, can bid on the project themselves. The playing field is level.


Other smart moves were creating the authority itself four years ago and, of course, cutting the projected cost of the convention center project nearly in half. Originally, Mayor Jennings envisioned the convention center as a city project. But there was no question from the beginning that continued state support would be required. Various schemes were considered until the authority emerged. The great advantage of a state authority is its bonding power, not to mention getting Albany city and county taxpayers off the hook should something go dreadfully wrong.


So where does this latest development leave us?


Somewhere well past the middle of a long journey, but at least now with a sizeable Broadway address. The Bantz property fronts on Broadway, and so will the hotel and garage.


Much remains to be done before actual construction, but the haze of past indecision and misdirection is clearing. The view ahead is clear. A few parcels remain to be acquired. State approval of the financial plan and the release of funds will follow. A hotel bidder will commit once the project has been publicly supported by the state.


There's plenty of planning work to be done for the garage, an intermodal transportation system and what to do about buses. But by then, our step gets a lot lighter, because we're almost home.


And finally, what's in it for the city of Albany, a question I keep hearing from the cynics. If you really need to ask, you haven't toured downtown lately. Those bleak, empty blocks that ought to be the core of an active downtown are the stuff of despair, and have been for years with no alternative in sight. Except an Albany Convention Center complex. Have a little faith, it will happen.


Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.