January 30, 2012

A Nudge, A Wink Will Get It Done

By: Fred LeBrun, Commentary

Source: Times Union

The future of Albany Convention Center is as murky as ever.

Ten days ago, it looked like we were finally writing its obituary. I have been a steadfast supporter of the convention center and what I believe it will bring to downtown, Even so, I have to admit feeling relieved that finally there was resolution. More than a decade of trying to parse out the meaning of a few cryptic words on the subject by a succession of governors, and reading a tea leaf here and there, was wearing us out. Progress was pathetically slow and with little to no recognition it mattered by those up above.

Then Gov. Cuomo, in what appeared to be an impromptu elaboration on his budget address, stressed that he was in favor of private funding for convention centers rather than public financing. He was speaking specifically of the mammoth convention center for Queens he was touting. But quickly enough his remarks were extrapolated by some as the governor's word as well on the future of Albany Convention Center. Shawn Morris of Cohoes, for example, called the convention center dead by gubernatiorial pronouncement.

Except last week, when asked specifically about it, the governor said he has no opinion on the Albany Convention Center. He said he doesn't know that much about it. The earlier point he made was strictly generated by the situation in Queens. He added that, in essence, public financing may be justified in some other cases. Albany Convention Center, if it happens, would be the creation and ward of its own state authority, although the hotel within the proposed complex is a strong private investment component.

The governor elaborated that while convention centers often lose money, they can also be loss leaders that attract a lot of business and become vital to a community.

So the obituary got pulled. But we'll keep it in type just in case. One more time, we're back on the optimistic hook. But wouldn't it be nice to have something more substantial to hug?

I'm going to assume that everything that needs to be said, pro and con, about Albany Convention Center in its new, sleeker, pared-down and less expensive iteration has been said so many times over the years that nobody wants to hear it again.

The governor, though, raises a great point about a convention center becoming a vital loss leader. We've seen that already with Times Union Center downtown, the former Knickerbocker Arena.

During the strange bygone era of Albany County Executive Jim Coyne, I was one of those who wrote adamantly against building that arena, mostly because I felt the county taxpayers were going to be on the hook for considerable debt service and more if it didn't make money. I wasn't wrong about that. But I was about the overall benefit of the facility to the entire Capital Region.

Imagine downtown Albany without Times Union Center and every event that's been held there. I'm not going to say the arena has been transformative, but pretty close. It loses money, more often than not a lot of money. Is it worth it?

Then try to imagine an Albany without Empire State Plaza and The Egg, or our state university campus. Each of those huge public projects in its time required a far greater lift than we need now to push forward with the next pearl in this necklace, the convention center.

How the convention center gets done, finally, hasn't changed, only some of the players have. We still need a leader to make it his or her cause.

Logically, in should be Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. During Gov. George Pataki's long tenure, the mayor was an enthusiastic booster of the convention center concept when it was hatched. Lately, it seems his ardor has cooled. Then again, when it comes to petitioning the present governor for help, Jerry has so much else on his plate he needs a serving platter. For him, it's all about keeping his city going year to year with whatever bunny he can pull out of the hat, while keeping the future of the Harriman campus alive.

Consequently, Albany Convention Center doesn't appear to be a priority for Jennings, nor will it be unless it suddenly looks like a sure thing. Even though ultimately, as he is well aware, it is the city that would benefit most from the majority of clientele it would attract. Namely, those doing business with the state.

Enthusiasm for the project has waned generally within the business community downtown as well, because progress is so slow and incremental. Who can blame them? It does stand to reason that our new age academic/business partnership uptown, nanotechnology, will come around eventually to exerting influence over the future of downtown Albany. The city, after all, is the port of call for those attracted to the university, and will have to keep up. So if there is a single business leader, if you can call him that, with the weight to push the convention center project out of limbo, it would be Nano Czar Alain Kaloyeros.

But ultimately, in Albany, one leader trumps all. Gov. Cuomo could make Albany Convention Center a sure thing with a few public words to that effect, and one phone call to his budget chief, Bob Megna, releasing land acquisition funds for the convention center authority.

A few words, with enormous consequences for the future of the capital city.

Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/A-nudge-a-wink-will-get-it-done-2792002.php#ixzz1mIAgpGr7