A cost shift for convention center?

Authority officials have asked Paterson for long-term state loans to cover another $190 million in expenses

JAMES M. ODATO Capitol bureau
Section: Main,  Page: A3

Date: Wednesday, April 16, 2008

ALBANY - Albany Convention Center Authority officials want state taxpayers to pick up another $190 million in costs for the proposed downtown project, they said Tuesday.

The authority's leaders have approached the Paterson adminis tration about getting long-term state loans to cover a gap created largely by inflation, Authority Chairman George Leveille said. The request, if successful, would bring the total state portion for the $390 million facility to $265 million, including a $75 million grant already provided under a deal made by former Gov. George Pataki. Leveille said alternatives have been discussed with the state Division of the Budget in recent weeks, including a bigger capital infusion up front.

"It doesn't look like a great time to look for a couple hundred million extra dollars," he said, so the talks have focused on the state issuing new bonds for the project, to be paid by the state general fund over 30 years or so.

He said he had no opinion on whether the project has become too expensive to pursue. "We're not policymakers . . . We're providing facts and figures for the decision-makers to use," he said.

Assemblyman Jack McEneny, D-Albany, an authority board member, said the project needs to be completed so New Yorkers can have a convention center in the state's capital city that can accommodate gatherings for large organizations such as unions.

He said he is still trying to gauge the interest of Gov. David Paterson, who has warned that the state must drastically cut its spending. Pataki and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer backed the project. McEneny hopes for an answer from Paterson by the June 23 end of session on whether he also will support the convention center.

McEneny said he anticipates the facility's operating revenues paying for much of the new debt, but Leveille said that is unlikely.

The project was initially estimated to cost $200 million and the financing now in place supports only that sum.

"The gap is $190 million," he said. "The existing stream of revenues are included in the current plan; they don't cover the nut."

Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Paterson, said the governor has asked Empire State Development Corp. to examine the new cost estimates. "We are going to review it," she said. Critics say the new price tag offers the state a chance to walk away from the project.

"This would amount to throwing good money after bad," said E.J. McMahon, director of the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center, who called the project "a white elephant from the start. Here at a time where our borrowing is already excessive and our state budget is already overcommitted, you're talking about bailing out a project that was unnecessary to begin with."

The authority has identified parcels near the Greyhound bus station for the center, a Sheraton Hotel and a parking garage to be linked to Albany County's Times Union Center. McEneny called it the last ugly section of downtown.

Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem, said he needed more information about the proposed financing scheme before commenting. He said he was unaware the state was being asked to pick up the additional costs of the project.

James M. Odato can be reached at 454-5083 or by e-mail at jodato@timesunion.com.