Albany Convention Center project still alive
Albany Convention Center project still alive
Land purchase moves ahead plan for $220M site in downtown Albany
By Jordan Carleo-Evangelist
Updated 04:18 a.m., Friday, May 25, 2012
ALBANY — A $490,000 land deal shows the Albany Convention Center project remains alive despite lingering questions about the state's willingness to finance the $220 million downtown proposal.
Albany Convention Center Authority officials said the purchase Thursday of the old Trail ways bus terminal at 358 Broadway is the first made for the project since August 2010. Demolition of the building and other properties could begin as soon as the fall.
"We're continuing to assemble the site, and this again puts us one step closer to complete site control," authority chairman Gavin Do no hue said. "We've been working very closely with Mayor Jennings on this, and we're meeting in the very near future on what approvals we may need from the city to move forward."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made comments this winter that sowed doubt about the state commitment to the future of the center plan.
Cuomo later clarified his skepticism of publicly funded convention centers was not meant to refer specifically to the Albany project, located between Hudson Avenue and the South Mall Arterial.
But the state's willingness to subsidize the annual debt payments on the facility, a major component of the project, appears to remain in question.
The roughly quarter-acre parcel acquired Thursday from Terminal Building LLC sits at the corner of Broadway and Division Street. The building would be demolished to widen the road and create what's envisioned as a tree-lined boulevard leading from Broadway into a plaza in front of the proposed 300,000-square-foot convention space.
The authority now controls about three-quarters of the roughly six acres needed for the convention center and related parking facility, retail space, bus station and privately developed hotel, authority Executive Director Duncan Stewart said.
Omni Development owns the largest remaining piece of land needed for the project. It is located the Key Bank building on South Pearl Street.
Construction of the parking facility —which will also house a new Greyhound bus terminal — and hotel will require demolition of several buildings known as E-Comm Square. Infrastructure work could also begin.
The first two candidates for demolition could be the Trail ways building and 6 E-Comm Square, directly across Division Street. The work would clear the entire footprint for the hotel, Stewart said.
The authority financed the Trail ways purchase with existing cash,part of an initial $75 million set aside by former Gov. George Pataki for land acquisition and design work.
Roughly $63 million of the money remains, reauthorized this year by Cuomo and the Legislature. The funds are not accessible to the authority without first making a request to the state.
While Cuomo included the funds in his budget, he also startled project boosters in January when — responding to a question about a massive,privately financed convention center planned for Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens —he said: "'Am I in favor of government building a convention center?' I would say 'no.'"
Cuomo later stressed that he had "no opinion" on the Albany project specifically and added he did not know much about it.
The project is not without local detractors who contend it won't transform downtown and the money would better be invested in revitalizing neighborhoods.
A key remaining hurdle is state approval of the project's finance plan. It roughly calls for the issuance of bonds to pay for construction while the state agrees to lease the facility from the authority for an amount that would cover the debt payments, estimated at $7 million to $9 million a year.
Asked whether there was a timetable for that approval, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget said the onus was on the authority to overcome projected deficits from the project.
"There continues to be a significant funding gap for the Albany Convention Center project," the spokesman, Morris Peters, said."As the authority works towards identifying solutions for the funding gap,the state will be closer to approving the plan of finance. But the project is not at that point yet and any timetable will be dependent on their progress."
Donohue said he takes his cues from the governor and the Legislature, which reapproved the project's seed money.
"Our statutory authority is to continue to develop the site,and I haven't been told not to do that," he said.
Meanwhile, the Assembly is expected to act soon on the extension of Albany County's 6 percent hotel occupancy tax, one-sixth of which — or about$1.17 million last year — goes to fund the day-to-day operations oft he authority.
"I would expect we could vote on it early next week,"said Albany Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who is also a member of the authority's board and one of the convention center's most ardent supporters.
Once the project is completed, the share of the hotel tax money steered to the authority would triple to help pay for its construction debt and operation.
But without the approval of the state Legislature this year, the tax would revert to 3 percent, cutting off the authority's operating money.
McEneny — who said he is not yet sure whether he'll remain on the board after he retires from the Assembly at year's end — said he does not expect trouble passing the tax's extension. He called the Trailways acquisition a positive development.
"I'm still very much committed to it," he said."This is good news. It's forward movement."