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Albany’s Downtown and Tomorrow’s Prospects

Credit: Jean Mackay, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor
Downtown Schenectady, NY could provide a model for development in other communities.

By Paul Bray

The buzz over the desire of some to have an Albany aquarium built is what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again”.

When I read about Omni Development Co. President I. David Swawite’s proposal for an aquarium in downtown Albany on a site reserved for a proposed convention center, I went back to a column I wrote for the Times Union in September 1998. It was about a proposal for a downtown aquarium and IMAX Theater that a group from Mayor Jenning’s Capitalize Albany advisors and the Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) brought back from a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee

I feel the same today about the aquarium notion as I did in 1998. Simply stated, a unique and culturally rich city like Albany should invest in its assets and strengths developed over time like its heritage, established institutions, great architecture and streets, parks, river front and neighborhoods rather than investing in entertainment attractions like an aquarium.

I suggested in the column that we should have a civic debate over which path to take, investing in entertainment or in local assets. We did not have the civic debate. We don’t have an aquarium or the Mayor’s passion, a convention center.

When it comes to Albany’s assets, the historic St. Joseph’s Church, an Albany icon, remains empty without a plan for its future. But we have built attractive and well sited new public schools and public libraries.

Mayor Jennings hasn’t given up on getting a convention center. Too bad in 1998 he ignored a consultant’s report recommending a dramatic upgrade of the Empire State Plaza’s convention and meeting facilities to include a 28,000-square-foot ballroom and another 3,800 square feet of meeting and service space for an estimated cost of $18 to $19 million. The new ballroom, when combined with the New York Museum’s Terrace Gallery, will provide spectacular, one-of-a-kind setting that can become the signature function space of Albany’s public assembly offering.”

In contrast to Albany’s civic fumbling, the recent Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor’ conference in Schenectady on “Where Canal Meets Commercial Corridor, Unlocking Investment Opportunities in Your Downtown” offered many ideas.

Much of the event focused on introducing the relatively new approach of “locavesting” and “crowdfunding” as a means of attracting entrepreneurs, developers and project funding to downtowns. It exemplified how heritage areas can be a creative force to downtown development.

Crowdfunding, according to Woody Neiss of Crowdfund Capital Advisors, “is not about ‘finding the next Facebook’ -Silicon Valley does a robust job of that already. It’s about finding and funding ‘the next 1 or 100,000 Main Street startups’ that will create jobs and help build strong and prosperous communities. It’s social media meets community finance.”

Needless to say, Albany needs Main Street startups.

David Buicko, CEO of the Galesi Group, also spoke at the conference. This traditional, locally based developer gave a long list of downtown development projects in Schenectady that involved the Galesi Group. They included the Bowtie 11 screen cinema and the new Golub Corporate Headquarters amongst an impressive array of large and small development that is reviving Downtown Schenectady.

Buicko highlighted the promising Alco project. It involves cleaning up a contaminated brownfield and turning it into a Mohawk River Harbor. It would be the first river front “life style center” with lots of dockage for boats in our Hudson and Mohawk river cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy.

Hopefully the dust up over the aquarium proposal entwined with the unrealized convention center proposal is just the last gasp of Albany’s way of failing.

Progressive, new leadership in the Mayor’s office unconnected from the old ways of running a city can be a catalyst for creatively engaging developers like the Galesi Group, nonprofit community organizations like the Community Loan Fund, heritage areas like the Erie Canalway, the Hudson River National Heritage Area and the Albany Heritage Area. Potential partners and Albany’s citizenry need to work with the next mayor in the spirit one can find in Schenectady.

Credit: Jean Mackay, Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor