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Convention Headaches

To the Editor:

Just finished reading your article on Albany’s proposed convention center [“Convention Wisdom,” March 2]. Nicely done. Your article was honest, up-front, well-written and most importantly, sobering. It’s unfortunate that it was not on the front page of the Times Union or the top story on tonight’s news, for clearly as many people as possible need to hear your thoughtful analysis. If they did, this project would not go forward, or it would at least be slowed down.

I was born and raised here (the city of Albany), and am as eager as any city resident to see Albany, and, in particular, downtown, prosper. That said, surely there must be less-costly, less-risky investments toward that goal than this proposed convention center. There can be no argument that there are signs of positive life in downtown—lots of new restaurants, clubs, the Palace, ambitious plans for Park South, etc. But a casual stroll down State Street is a sobering dose of just how far things have to go downtown, with nearly every other building from Eagle to South Pearl being boarded up or crumbling in disrepair from years of neglect and obsolescence. In my opinion I don’t see a huge convention center doing anything to improve that blight.

Can Mayor Jennings really believe that this center is the panacea for Albany’s woes? That it will “breathe new life” into downtown with “hundreds of thousands” of annual visitors? Didn’t we learn our lesson with the Pepsi Arena (or whatever the next underwriter decides to call it), which, more than 10 years after it opened, still can’t pay its own debts? Imagine the magnitude of the failure and the resultant cost to the taxpayers if this center fails? If even half the statistics you cite are close to accurate, that failure is all but a certainty. If, as you say, overall convention attendance nationwide is down 50 percent since 1999, what makes these center proponents think they can compete for visitors and make this venture a success against cities the likes of New Orleans, Vegas, or Orlando, or even Boston, Providence or New York?

Think of it this way . . . what’s the temperature here right now . . . 10 degrees with a windchill of minus 15? If you were a convention planner planning your industry’s next convention outing, where would Albany fall on your list of destination cities?

Ten years from now I’d like not to be able to say “I told you so . . . ” but given the statistics you cite and our very relevant and recent experience with the Pepsi, I think it’s plain to see where this is headed. I only hope I live far enough away that I don’t get stuck with the tax bill.

Thank you again for telling it like it is. Let’s hope more people start to listen.

Matthew Amodeo

Albany

To the Editor:

I’m glad to finally see Metroland casting a critical eye on the proposed convention center project. Since the Green Party and the Alice Green campaign talked about it half a year ago, most local media have ignored the issue at large—that the convention center is a horrible idea, both for the regional economy and the city as a whole. One of the main sources cited in the campaign’s paper on the convention center, Dr. Heywood Sanders, also makes a welcome reappearance. I’d like to highlight that not only do the economics of the convention center make no sense, but that such a huge public works project on prime real estate not being put up for a referendum borders on the criminal.

Given the research done by Dr. Sanders and others on the enormous amount of convention centers built or upgraded over the last five years (over 50!), and their poor return as economic growth engines (only three break even or turn a profit), one must question the wisdom and the rationale for such a center in Albany. The convention center will lose money, and as it does, either the businesses around it will see their profits shrink or it will make little difference on the whole (except perhaps to property values). The living-wage jobs that seem to be in the offing will account for barely any of the city’s workforce; it is not as if thousands of people underemployed across the city will have a new savior. In fact, with $200 million on the table as an investment in a sure-fire money loser, it would be more logical to throw that money into small-scale job programs, a county-wide living wage in public and private businesses, health care, etc.—things that would really spark an improvement in daily life here. If you are more capitalistic in mindset, perhaps you might say to pump $200 million directly into the downtown business district in the form of subsidies or tax breaks to small businesses rather than a gigantic convention center.

No elected official is demanding a referendum on this issue. A community-benefits agreement meeting I attended saw two local officials (Wanda Willingham and Corey Ellis) sadly resigned to its being built as a fait accompli, instead of openly questioning why it was being rammed down our throats without a democratic vote. The convention center authority is made up of handpicked members of the business community with one or two community reps sprinkled in to give it some aura of respectability. The membership is made up of groups that stand to gain from this project—lawyers, developers, and entertainment industry representatives.

When we examine who is to gain, the purpose of the convention center becomes clear and highlights the bipartisan support it has in the Legislature. Jerry Jennings, our Ozymandias, wants it as an eternal symbol of his glory. Developers (and their paid elected representatives) would like to see land values go up in downtown Albany so they can raise rents, move more upscale clients and businesses in, and generally begin to gentrify parts of Albany. It is pretty obviously connected to the general thrust of the Park South “urban renewal” program and the Midtown plan, and why this money has never been offered toward rebuilding the infrastructure and job-base of the city as a whole—the coalition of developers and officials wants to see land values go up and couldn’t care less about much beyond the downtown business district (Pearl Street, Broadway, State Street) and selected, pilot gentrification projects. Affordable housing and living-wage jobs are simply not on the agenda because it is not profitable for them.

The convention center is not a done deal. Civic groups in Manhattan came together to block the Jets Stadium deal and expansion of the Jacob Javits convention center, and others are trying to block the Brooklyn Rail Yards project as we speak. A similar thing could happen in Albany—and it doesn’t simply have to be around a negative program against the convention center. The demand could grow from simply stopping the project to redirecting the money into the communities that need it most, and having a really grassroots debate about how best to revitalize Albany.

Peter LaVenia

Chair, Albany County Green Party

To the Editor:

The State Capital from the outside appears to be full of interesting attractions and brimming with historic character, but in actuality if you view Albany from the inside you would find that this beloved Capital needs some tender love and care. After downtown workers punch out for the night, Albany is a ghost town. Before we can even imagine building this massive convention center and hotel, we need to severely revitalize the city.

First and foremost, Albany needs quality downtown housing. Current homeowners and landlords need to step up and improve the exterior and interior conditions of their homes so that they attract and keep renters and new homeowners in the area. New housing needs to be made (and when I say new housing I don’t mean new construction, but instead the renovation and then the preservation of the many historic vacant buildings located downtown). Albany doesn’t need luxury apartments, rather affordable housing for college students, recent graduates, professionals and employees of downtown businesses.

Secondly, there needs to be a downtown economy that isn’t limited to bars, restaurants and coffee shops. There needs to be stores that service the needs of residents and downtown employees, and stores that are attractive to visitors’ eyes. Not overpriced gift shops, but clothing shops, shoe stores and corner mom-and-pop grocery stores.

When these things happen then Albany will look and feel alive and become the desired destination it deserves to be. Only then can we even fathom building something as colossal and expensive as a convention center. In the horrible event that it is built before Albany is revitalized, it will fail and be yet another white elephant in the Albany skyline.

Christiana Limniatis

Albany

To the Editor:

Your article was very interesting. Mayor Jennings should read it. Do the voters have any say in the matter or is this a done deal?

Why doesn’t the mayor or anyone else mention that we already have a convention center? Is it so overbooked that we need a second one?

Laura Silver Kuhne

Albany

Correction

In “Music With No Home” (Newsfront, March 2), the chemical solvent used in dry cleaning was misidentified as percoethylene. The correct chemical name is perchloroethylene.

In Readers’ Picks 2006 (March 9), the second-place winner in the Best Brew Pub category was misidentified as Troy Pub and Brewery. The establishment is now known as Brown’s Brewing Company.

Metroland welcomes typed, double-spaced letters (computer printouts OK), addressed to the editor. Or you may e-mail them to: metroland@metroland.net. Metroland reserves the right to edit letters for length; 300 words is the preferred maximum. You must include your name, address and day and evening telephone numbers. We will not publish letters that cannot be verified, nor those that are illegible, irresponsible or factually inaccurate.

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