AND FIRST PRIZE GOES TO . . .

No one, so far, but marketing effort is ramped up to find buyer for long-vacant site

CHRIS CHURCHILL BUSINESS WRITER
Section: Business,  Page: C1

Date: Thursday, December 24, 2009

COLONIE -- Walmart. Kmart. Home Depot. Lowe's. Whole Foods.


All those major retailers have, at one time or another, expressed interest in opening at a redeveloped First Prize Center. But nearly 30 years after the closure of the meat-packing company that once operated there, the site is forlorn and mostly empty.


"It's a mess," said Anthony Stellato, who lives nearby and worked for 30 years at Tobin Meat Packing Co. before it closed in 1981. "The place is really an eyesore now."


CB Richard Ellis/Albany is working on changing that. The company has been hired to find a buyer and developer for the land -- which is for sale for $5 million -- and is promising an aggressive marketing campaign for the 32-acre property.


Richard Sleasman, executive vice president at CB Richard Ellis, describes the parcel as one of only a few prime development sites remaining in and around Albany, and says his company will apply "a full-court press" to find a new and better use.


That certainly will be welcome news to many in the West Albany section of Colonie, including those who say they're tired of driving by the grim, post-industrial scene at the corner of Exchange Street and Everett Road.


They're not the only ones who drive by: The center's smokestack and big red sign are within view of Interstate 90, as are the graffiti that decorate part of its south wall.


That visibility is one of the site's great strengths. And Sleasman envisions finding a developer who will build a mixed-use project on the land, perhaps with homes or offices and light retail.


But the site has more than its share of complexities. First, it comes with demolition costs and may require pollution cleanup. The land is also divided between Albany and Colonie -- with the Albany side zoned industrial and the Colonie portion zoned for residential and commercial uses.


The Albany County Industrial Development Agency owns the center and adjoining land, although the partnership Exchange Street Associates has a lease-purhase deal in place for the property.


Under the arrangement, Exchange Street pays the IDA $108,000 annually, allowing it to lease portions of the land to some smaller tenants. Exchange Street will take ownership of the property at the end of 2014 -- unless it sells the lease-purchase deal to a developer.


Richard Ganz, an Exchange Street partner, said the group has several times come close to landing a major tenant, only to have the deal slip away for unexpected reasons.


Kmart, for example, backed off when if filed for bankruptcy protection, while Home Depot decided it would rather open on the far side of Interstate 90.


Neighbors in the past have been divided on whether they want large-scale retail at the site. Some, such as Exchange Street resident Richard Keegan, still oppose it.


"A vacant lot" is what he wants First Prize Center to become -- unless the city absolutely ensures that traffic from new development avoids adjoining residential neighborhoods.


"This street gets pretty congested with traffic," Keegan said. "(We) have a lot of children walking the street here."


Sleasman says he is not focusing on finding a large-scale retailer, but Joe LaCivita, planning director in Colonie, says he's been working to attract one, so far without success.


LaCivita said town officials nearly had Whole Foods, the upscale grocer, "on the hook" for the site. He also said he's been pitching the First Prize Center land to Cabela's, the sporting-goods retailer.


"Any new use is going to be better than what's there now," LaCivita said. "That's one of those forgotten pockets of the town."


Chris Churchill can be reached at 454-5442 or cchurchill@timesunion.com. Read Places & Spaces, his real estate blog, at http://blog.timesunion.com/realestate.