Yes, a convention center

Section: Perspective,  Page: B4

Date: Sunday, February 3, 2008

Friday was a day when the easiest path in Albany would have been a brisk retreat. With the estimated cost of the proposed Albany convention center now at $397.5 million and expected to go even higher, abandoning support for it would have been so politically expedient. Even Mayor Jerry Jennings, for so long the convention center's biggest advocate, is having very public second thoughts.

Instead, the Albany Convention Center Authority gave a welcome reassurance that it isn't about to abandon its work. Nor should it. This is still a prudent investment in the future of a city that needs a facility like the convention center to truly fulfill its role as a state capital. This is a state project, not a city project, and one entirely deserving of a commitment even larger than the $205 million that's been approved already.

But, yes, Albany has a huge stake of its own here. Governor Spitzer and the leaders and members of the Legislature need to hear anew about the impact that convention centers have had on Providence, R.I., and Hartford, Conn. It was barely two months ago that civic leaders from those two cities told a Times Union community forum how the convention centers there were built despite public doubt and concerns about rising costs. Providence and Hartford resisted the temptation to retreat or even to scale back their plans. They gambled, in essence, but gambled shrewdly. The result is that building those facilities led to more housing construction and retail activity.

There's every reason to believe that a convention center could be an essential part of a larger plan for the continued revival of downtown Albany. Mr. Jennings' concerns that state money is urgently needed elsewhere - to at last confront the growing problem of vacant and abandoned buildings, and to help balance the city budget - are valid, certainly. But state government will be doing Albany one more disservice if it puts the city in the unfair position of having to choose among the immediacy of cleaning up blight, finally getting its appropriate share of state aid or the construction of a convention center.

Surely the way to address the concerns raised not only by Mr. Jennings but by an articulate convention center opponent like Council Member Dominick Calsolaro is for the state to allow both Albany's downtown and its troubled neighborhoods to flourish. This is much more than some local pork project, as state Assemblyman Jack McEneny points out.

The livelier and healthier downtown that's emerged during Mr. Jennings' 15 years in office is still the result of scattershot development and good fortune more than a unified, determined vision for the capital city. A project that draws people from across the state into Albany and serves as a catalyst for more development is what's missing here.

Even now, downtown has the look and feel of an unfinished puzzle. The proposed convention center site - off Broadway, south of State Street - stands out, if it stands out at all, as a glaring reminder of what a capital city shouldn't look like. It's up the hill, in the splendor of the Capitol, where Mr. Spitzer has promised time and again to embrace upstate New York, rather than allow neglect of it to continue.

Delivering on that promise starts right here, governor, with a plan for an Albany convention center that can't be abandoned.