FORGET ABOUT AN ALBANY CONVENTION CENTER

PAUL BRAY
Section: Perspective,  Page: B2

Date: Sunday, February 14, 2010

When he spoke at the Albany Roundtable's first luncheon in 1979, then-Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd started a tradition of announcing a good piece of news about the city. He would mention that a new business was opening or a vacant building was going to be renovated.


Mayor Thomas Whalen picked up on the practice during his years in office and Mayor Jerry Jennings did likewise, at least for a few years when he spoke at the roundtable. Then the practice stopped.


To my delight, whether or not it was intended as a revival of that practice, Jennings made an announcement at the January roundtable that I found to be really good news. He noted that the Empire State Development Corporation had $75 million earmarked for an Albany Convention Center. He said the corporation should either get that money working to build the convention center or move on with mixed-use development in its place.


Wow, was the mayor willing to throw in the towel on the fruitless effort to build a convention center we don't need and can't afford? I wasn't the only person at the luncheon who drew that conclusion.


With all the pain in Gov. David Paterson's proposed state budget, worse financial plight projected in future years and Albany's own financial problems, there is no way the state, city and local hotel owners who are taxed for the convention center by Albany County are going to foot a bill of more than $200 million for a proposal that doesn't now include a hotel. Putting the arguments about the behemoth convention center aside, let's look at what we can and really should do to strengthen the economy of Albany and the region.


Albany can meet its convention center needs at the right scale. A 1998 consultant's report looked at "a dramatic upgrade of the existing Empire Convention and meeting facilities," including addition of a 28,000-square-foot ballroom and 3,880 square feet of dedicated breakout space.For an estimated $18 million to $19 million, the consultant stated, "the new ballroom when combined with the New York Museum's Terrace Gallery will provide a spectacular, one of a kind setting that can become the signature function space of Albany's public assembly offering."


A conference facility at University Heights also makes sense and was proposed for the New Scotland Avenue Armory. This would augment the research and medical advances taking place in that area. I was told the idea was dropped out of fear Jennings would object.


There also has been talk of a hotel and conference center at the Harriman Campus or at the University at Albany's nanotechnology college to serve the research and development firms emerging from the state's already large investment.


Each of these three proposed facilities targets and would serve Albany's economic engines: state government, education and medicine at University Heights and technology at UAlbany.


Downtown, where the convention center would be located, is an ideal area for a complex of residential, office, food store and retail development like what you see on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. This could be the spark we need for Albany to rebuild its population and its tax base, and to enliven its downtown as the regional center it once was.


Finally, as Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro recommended, the Albany Convention Center Authority could be reorganized into a Rebuild Albany Authority, with the already available funds, though insufficient for the convention center, productively targeted at rehabbing our vacant buildings. This would include apprenticeship positions in the construction trades for people living in Albany's depressed neighborhoods.


Calsolaro envisions the new authority serving as a land bank that could acquire and directly or indirectly manage vacant and abandoned property to foster new development and related activities. Land banking has been successful in Michigan cities that have the same abandoned and vacant building problems as Albany does.


Albany's prospects are much more promising if Jennings really is willing to let go of the convention center fixation. Thankfully, he may realize this.


Paul Bray's e-mail address is secsunday@aol.com.