Expenses won't wait for convention site

Salaries and other costs for proposed Albany center were more than $72,000 last month

TIM O'BRIEN Staff Writer
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Saturday, August 30, 2008

ALBANY - Even though it may never be built, the proposed Albany Convention Center cost taxpayers more than $72,000 last month.

Three employees work full time for the Albany Convention Center Authority, which spent almost $26,000 in July on such day-to-day expenses as salaries and the operation of its downtown office at 386 Broadway. It spent another nearly $47,000 on consultants and other nonoperating expenses. The authority is awaiting a report ordered by Gov. David Paterson and a decision on $190 million in added state funding for the center. Without the money, the $400 million project will die. Paterson's office is reviewing a draft of the report.

"We're just still in a holding pattern," said Gavin Donohue, who became chairman of its board after the original leader, George Leveille, resigned.

The authority has the money to do archaeological digs, but property owners are balking at letting the work be done. It has picked contractors to build and run the center and accompanying 400-room hotel, but it cannot buy the land or begin construction.

Authority leaders acknowledge they had hoped to be further along but say they are not idle and their work will have an impact even if the center is not built.

And while the authority continues to spend money, they note, it's far less than budgeted. From January to July, $850,000 was spent, compared to $13.3 million budgeted.

"We remain solidly behind the concept of the convention center," said Executive Director Duncan Stewart. "There is still a very strong demand and market for this type of facility in the capital city of New York state."

Assemblyman Jack McEneny, an authority board member, noted the authority is not alone as Paterson tries to bring the state's own deficit under control. For the 2008-09 fiscal year, the state predicts a deficit of $5.4 billion.

"It's very frustrating," the Albany Democrat said. "You want to see things done, but it has to be judged in the whole context."

The authority has three full-time employees: Stewart, who is paid $113,000 annually; Project Manager Al Sorrentino, who earns $77,264; and Office Manager Renee Goodbee, who receives $41,400. It had planned to hire a chief financial officer last March to oversee bonding for the project, but that was delayed while awaiting the state's verdict.

The authority has negotiated an agreement with a citizens group called the Coalition for Economic, Environmental and Educational Justice on benefits to the community from the project, though that agreement cannot be signed until the project is approved.

"We've had other things to appropriately turn our attention to even though we are not into design as we had intended," Stewart said.

Deborah Williams-Muhammad, a consultant to the authority, has helped 30 firms apply for state certification as minority- or women-owned enterprises. A workshop will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza to help such firms complete the state applications.

"While the delay hasn't been the easiest thing to deal with, it has enabled us to work with people," she said. That might enable the authority to have more minority- and women-owned firms participate if the project is launched, she said.

The authority did some digs to find what artifacts are on the site, but two major property owners would not grant permission for work on their property. Still, Stewart said, the resulting finds will be put in a report to the Quadricentennial Commission, marking the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage.

Stewart said the authority has re-examined its marketing study and believes it still holds. The study estimates the convention center would attract 50 to 80 events a year, ranging from one to four days each, bringing between 100,000 and 185,000 visitors annually to the city.

"Despite the economic uncertainty we face as a state and a nation, the market remains strong," he said. "Coming from the private sector, we're very truly aware we need to protect costs. We are very concerned we use this time efficiently."

Tim O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at tobrien@timesunion.com.