LAWMAKERS ALTER PLAN FOR CONVENTION CENTER

CATHY WOODRUFF and JAMES M. ODATO Staff writers
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B1

Date: Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Legislation authorizing an Albany convention center authority and a hotel tax to fund it is moving swiftly toward a vote in the Senate and Assembly, but the terms are not quite what Mayor Jerry Jennings sought. The legislation puts any state financial backing for the project on hold until detailed financial and development plans, including a designated site, are completed by a locally appointed authority that would meet in public.


An April 1 deadline is set for laying that groundwork. Reports on the authority's findings would be submitted to the governor, state comptroller and leaders of the Senate and Assembly by then.


Efforts to reach Jennings for comment were unsuccessful. However, Albany's representatives at the Capitol all were on board Monday with the legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, and Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem.


``If the mayor is smart he'll declare victory and send a nice thank-you note up to the Capitol,'' said McEneny. ``We're all going to be on the same page.''


Gov. George Pataki also spoke enthusiastically about the idea of building a convention center in downtown Albany.


``I think the mayor's advancing something that's very important, not just for the city but for the state, to have a convention center here in our capital,'' Pataki said after meeting Monday afternoon with Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.


Jennings' most recent proposal relied heavily on a 30-year state lease of the convention center to cover some $100 million in authority bonds.


Breslin, Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, D-Cohoes, McEneny and the Assembly speaker all said Jennings' heavy reliance on state backing was too tough to sell this year, given the state's fiscal problems.


``I think he's looking for more than the state either is prepared to supply or is able to provide at this time,'' said Silver.


``The scope of the project was so enormous that I think Jack (McEneny), Ron (Canestrari) and myself thought there was additional analysis that was needed,'' said Breslin, sponsor of the measure in the Senate. ``Ultimately the convention center will become a reality.''


Canestrari called the mayor's plan ``fiscally flawed,'' but said the new version is ``workable'' and ``prudent,'' adding ``we should be hearing applause from City Hall.''


Bruno declined comment on the specifics of the new bill but said whatever is passed ``has got to be something that works for everyone.''


Under the Breslin and McEneny bills, the mayor and Albany County Executive Michael Breslin each would appoint four members of an eight-member Convention Center Authority, with their appointments approved by the Albany Common Council and the Albany County Legislature, respectively.


McEneny said some $1 million in revenue from one-third of a county hotel tax should provide enough money to get the authority staffed and operating.


One key reason for getting the authority in place now, before a full plan is established, McEneny said, is to ensure that the authority meets regularly in public and holds hearings and public discussions on environmental issues, historic preservation concerns, financing options and siting considerations.


The bills require the authority to hold open meetings at least once a month and two public comment periods. Hearings also would be required on any project involving condemnation to take ownership of property and on the detailed financial plan and study to be submitted by April 1.


Previous planning by a task force appointed by the mayor, McEneny said, has been cloaked in secrecy much of the time because it is not subject to the requirements of New York's open meeting laws.


Once the authority finalizes a financial plan, McEneny said, the time will be ripe for the state to consider funding for the project and, perhaps, gain formal appointments to the authority board.


McEneny said he has dropped his previous objections to a hotel tax plan approved by the Albany County Legislature and Albany Common Council. The legislation would double the current 3 percent sales tax, with 1 percent going for convention center planning and the remaining 2 percent to the county.


Until the money is needed to help pay off convention center debt, the county could use the roughly $2 million a year to fund its general operations.


Three downtown sites have been identified for possible construction of the center and hotel complex, which has an estimated price of $185 million. Jennings initially sought creation of an authority with wider development power and the ability to finance up to $500 million in projects with state backing. He later trimmed that request to $300 million. Capitol bureau reporter Elizabeth Benjamin also contributed to this report.