On March 1, the ceremonial ribbon cutting for the Albany Capital Center convention center was held with great joy and relief. Relief, because after twenty years of waiting for this to happen, it finally happened. Joy, because now Albany had another convening venue to attract visitors to New York’s capital city. The ceremony was attended by most of the elected officials in the area, and many former electeds who served their terms and retired while waiting for the Albany Capital Center to finally become a reality. Other attendees included representatives of the business world and tourism industry.
Sorry to say, I was not one of the former elected officials invited to the event, even though I probably attended more Convention Center Authority Board meetings than any other current or prior elected official over the past eleven years. I also wasn’t expecting to be invited, as I had been a critic of the proposed project since its inception. I thought the $77 million could have been put to better use than in constructing one building, taking millions of dollars of taxable property off of Albany’s real property tax rolls, and adding more vacant/abandoned buildings to the ever-growing list of vacant buildings in the city. So, in keeping with my criticism of the Convention Center, I have one more criticism to write, now that the building is complete and the events are being booked. This criticism has to do with the divide between one of the major reasons given for building the Center and reality – getting more people to spend more time in downtown businesses and restaurants.
The Albany Capital Center was sold as a “transformational” project for the city of Albany. It was proposed that tens of thousands of people would be coming to Albany for conventions and sporting events, and these visitors would be spending millions of dollars in our small business establishments in downtown. And, I am hoping that this proves to be the case. The problem is that the connectivity of the Center to downtown businesses is adversely affected by the very same building that was supposed to encourage visitors to spend their money in Albany’s small stores and restaurants.
The heated and covered walkway is the problem. Follow this scenario: It is actually similar to the problem with the Empire State Plaza, a structure that intentionally limits access to Albany streets and sidewalks. Here goes: Joe Smith, a conventioneer from Boston, drives into the parking garage behind the beautifully restored Renaissance Hotel where he is staying for the convention. He registers for his room, goes through the walkway connecting the hotel/garage to the Capital Center for a meeting in one of the meeting rooms; then he decides to take in a hockey game at the Times Union Center, so he takes the walkway from the Center to the Times Union Center. Following the game, Mr. Smith takes that same walkway back to his hotel. The next morning he decides to see the Empire State Plaza, so he again enters the walkway and walks to the Plaza, visits the New York State Capitol, then heads back through the walkway to his convention’s luncheon. Following the lunch and afternoon meetings, he takes the walkway back to his room, naps a bit, and then goes back to the Albany Capital Center for a cocktail hour and evening meetings. He returns to his room via the walkway, sleeps in, then in the morning checks out from the hotel, takes that same walkway to his car, and leaves Albany. All this and never, ever, ever does Joe Smith step one foot on a city sidewalk!
If that is not bad enough, Joe Smith, if he didn’t feeling like walking to the Times Union Center, could actually have driven from this parking garage to the Times Union Center’s garage through an underground connection. This scenario, hopefully, will not be the way most visitors to the Capital Center get around downtown Albany. But, it seems the people running the Capital Center are blind to the negative affect this scenario could have on downtown businesses.
Two news stories on WAMC Northeast Public Radio point out this blind spot. In Dave Lucas’ report, “Albany Capital Center Opens,” Gavin Donohue, chairman of the Albany Convention Center Board, states: “There is also an enclosure that will allow you to drive from this garage into the Times Union Center garage. We can actually commute in between the two garages. That is a great feat in itself.” (My emphasis). In the second story, this one by Brian Shields entitled, “Busy Weekend for Albany Capital Center,” Doug McLaine, general manager of the Albany Capital Center, says that visitors can go from the Capital Center to the Empire State Plaza to the Times Union Center “without ever having to go outside.”
Obviously, there exists a divide between the initial efforts to construct a convention center in downtown Albany, ostensibly to bring more people downtown spending money in the city’s business establishments, and what the operators of the Albany Capital Center see as the virtues of the convention center. By extolling the walkway and underground connections from one parking garage to another, Donohue and Mclaine are missing the point of why the state approved and paid for this $77 million center – to help Albany’s downtown to be revitalized and prosper as a business and residential neighborhood.
Mayor Sheehan did remember that this was the reason behind the project in her remarks at the ribbon cutting. She stated that she “hopes the Center boosts local businesses. . . .” The operators of the Albany Capital Center and the Albany Convention and Visitors Center must STOP extolling the self-contained Capital Center/Empire State Plaza/Times Union Center, and they MUST start promoting the easy access to Albany’s downtown boutiques, food and retail establishments. If they refuse to do this, and continue to promote the Center as a complex where one can get around “without ever having to go outside” then the whole purpose of spending $77 million to help downtown Albany will be for naught. And, I don’t think any of us, even critics of the convention center like me, want to see this happen.