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The Bucks Stop Here?

Controversy heightens as the cost of Albany’s proposed convention center balloons

 

The Albany Convention Center Authority announced last week that budget estimates have reached $300 million for the ongoing convention-center project, which includes two hotels, planned for downtown Albany. While an earlier estimate by Albany Local Development Corporation placed the price tag between $185 million and $200 million, ACCA, which was created in January 2006, claims that the economic effects of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq have led to the skyrocketing manufacturing costs.

“The point I made last week about the budget has stirred up the attention of folks,” said ACCA Chairman George Leveille. “We simply want to be honest that these things have occurred in the market. It’s our responsibility as a state authority.”

Leveille stated that a 45-percent increase in construction costs has led to the rise in budget since the original estimate for the convention center was released in 2002.

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) is concerned that the convention center will be unable to be profitable, and that this additional cost will only increase the chance that the center will become a burden on the taxpayer. At the monthly ACCA meeting on June 29, Calsolaro urged board members to keep the budget at the original estimate of $185 million, stating that the extra spending will lead to an increase in sales tax, along with a possible additional food tax in restaurants.

Calsolaro suggested that the desired convention center could come from the original budget estimate of $185 million simply by adding onto the existing facility at the Empire State Plaza.

That is simply an unworkable solution, countered state Assemblyman Jack McEneny, who said that Empire State Plaza lacks the rooms, loading docks for exhibits and banquet facilities needed.

The proposed funding for the convention center, according to ACCA, comes from several sources. New York state is providing an initial $75 million in the form of a grant. Albany County is dedicating 1 percent of the Hotel Occupancy Tax, averaging roughly $1 million annually, before construction is complete, and 3 percent of HOT after construction is completed. The third form of funding will come from the proceeds raised from the sale of tax-exempt bonds.

“If we have to bond $200 million, between principal and interest, if it’s a 30-year bond, it will probably cost somewhere between $350 to $400 million to pay back,” Calsolaro cautioned in a public comment to the ACCA board. “If Albany is going to have to use state-aid monies to pay the convention-center/hotel debt service, then there will have to be an increase in the local real-property-tax rate to make up the difference. The backs of the taxpayers in Albany should not have to carry the load for a state authority’s debt service.”

However, according to ACCA CEO and executive director Duncan Stewart, the bonds are guaranteed in accordance with the New York state supplemental 19-A Public Lands Law. This law designates that the state compensate the city of Albany for land taken off the city’s property-tax roll—such as the Empire State Plaza—in lieu of those lost tax revenues. The proposed convention center, which will of course remove further property, would draw an additional, incremental payment. This money would be used as a backstop to ensure the bonds.

“That allows you to sell the bonds at an investment-grade level,” Stewart said. “It is an assurance to the investor that this is a good investment.”

The ACCA claims Albany taxpayers will be unburdened by the convention center, stating that revenue from the hotels, which will be publicly owned and privately operated, will pay off the interest payments necessitated by the bonds.

At the same time, ACCA does anticipate a gap in pricing once a formal budget is set. If this occurs, McEneny is prepared to approach the state to reassess the original amount of $75 million in regard to seeking more funds for the current budget.

“If you look at our statute, there is a very clear definition that our role is to develop a study [for the convention-center budget],” said Leveille. “That study will have it in the cost estimates and alternative sources of financing that might be able to close that gap.”

“The design is strictly conceptual at this point,” said McEneny. “Ultimately, we’re not going to build anything that we can’t afford. We’ll cut back on the design, delay some things or find outside funding.”

The next step on the agenda for ACCA is to set a formal budget. To do this, said Leveille, the authority needs to designate a design team and construction manager to work alongside the ACCA planning team. ACCA hopes to have the formal cost estimate determined on by September.

—Meagan Murray


What a Week

Diversity Under Siege

This past week, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling decided that schools can no longer take race into account when assigning children to public schools. Chief Justice John G. Roberts stated in the majority opinion that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In his dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer declared the majority vote irresponsible and insisted that it will threaten the spirit of Brown v. the Board of Education. “To invalidate the plans under review is to threaten the promise of Brown,” wrote Breyer. “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret.”

Executive Decision

Vice President Dick Cheney insists he is not part of the executive branch; he claims he is under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch because of his role as president of the Senate. Cheney’s position stems from his desire to not have to put classified and declassified documents on record as bodies under the executive branch have to do. Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Illinois), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, moved to further cement Cheney’s position as exclusively a member of the Legislature by cutting the funding he gets from the executive branch’s budget.

Above the Law

Republicans and Democrats took shots at the heads of their opposing parties after the Times Union reported their alleged use of state aircraft for fund-raising and political purposes. Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) has been accused of using state aircraft to fly to fund-raisers in Manhattan more than three times, while Gov. Eliot Spitzer has been accused of using an aircraft for one trip that the Times Union described as “partly political.”

On Deadly Ground

Both American and Iraqi officials say that civilian deaths in Iraq have dropped 36 percent in June to about 1,200 dead from May’s 1,900 count. Although some attribute the decline to the increased presence of American soldiers, others say that death counts in Iraq are terribly inaccurate to begin with. The New York Times pointed out Monday that bodies in Iraq are sometimes lost in bombings, taken by families or lost at the hospital before they ever reach the morgue, making an accurate count impossible.



Come Tumbling Down

Concerned with the safety of an abandoned building, an Albany man struggles with the city to get it razed

Fifty-four Walter Street is silently, slowly rotting. Its windows are bare sockets, bereft of glass. The basement yawns open, inviting stray animals or any random passerby into its moldy confines. Rose-colored brick walls slouch indifferently, crumbling into pieces. Used firecrackers litter the lawn; a languid gray cat disappears into the overgrown backyard.

“I can kick a brick out of this place, and I’m 150 pounds. It is not a safe place, obviously,” said Anthony Cimino anxiously as he demonstrated his brick-kicking feat.

Cimino lives across the street from 54 Walter in Albany’s northern Arbor Hill neighborhood. The lot has been untended since 1982 and sits in the middle of a residential street. Many of the houses surrounding the building have been renovated recently and have things like large white porches and new yellow siding; the broken windows and general deterioration of the abandoned house just don’t fit in.

Not only is the house an eyesore for the neighborhood, it’s a danger to it as well, said Cimino, stressing that it is exactly the type of place kids could goof off in and get hurt. Cimino has lived on the street for three years and has spent the last four months trying to get the house taken down.

Cimino has waged an unsuccessful campaign to get the building removed, beginning with a number of phone calls to the Division of Building and Codes within the Albany Department of Public Safety. According to Cimino, he received no complete answers from the Codes Division and eventually was directed to the Albany Fire Department.

The fire department sent out a crew to investigate the structure and found it to be “structurally sound.”

Cimino decided it was time to make a group effort. “No More 54!” is the title of a petition signed by each resident of Walter Street, declaring that the building should be “torn down, fixed up, or sold to someone who will revive it.”

“The whole block went wild when I brought the petition,” said Cimino.

The now two-month-old petition was distributed to the fire department, mayor’s office and Division of Building and Codes. Despite the 29 signatures, 54 Walter Street is still standing.

“It’s too damn long,” said Cimino. “This is the last one [dilapidated building] on the block. It’s gotta go.”

Cimino said that he has put in calls to his Common Council representative, Barbara Smith (Ward-4), and is also reaching out to local neighborhood associations.

“Let something happen,” urged Cimino. “This is for the birds.”

Cimino would like to see 54 Walter taken down and its property turned into a garden, though realistically, he thinks it would work best as a neighborhood parking lot. Whatever happens, Cimino insisted, he just doesn’t want to have to look at it when he glances out his living-room window.

“I’m a landlord,” he said. “Why should I have trouble getting tenants?”

The building, according to Cimino, is currently labeled as a “partial collapse.” It is unclear what it will take to get it removed, but Cimino is determined to find out.

Representatives for the Division of Building and Codes and for the code division of the Albany Fire Department would not comment. Smith, too, declined to comment for this article.

—Carlene Willsie


Frontier Spirit

Trying to sail down the Hudson provides a seemingly endless supply of challenges

It was Dallas Trombley’s third attempt.

After working for months, his sailboat, weighing roughly 2,000 pounds, was complete. Building it from sections of old dock, Trombley had thought of everything: a screened-in cabin to avoid the biting flies, a mast and sail to catch the strong winds, rowing oars for the calm days when the tide was flowing upstream, and a trolling motor in case of an emergency.

The plan was to set sail last Thursday (June 28), from the shore of Corning Preserve in Albany in his homemade boat, and navigate his way down the Hudson River to Brooklyn. He figured the trip would take eight to 10 days, depending on the tides.

After a hellish 24 hours transporting the boat by himself (begging two tows, surviving a massive lightning storm, and at one point actually dragging the boat alongside a dike) from New Baltimore where the vessel had been docked, Trombley arrived just in time Thursday, anchoring the craft in the river and canoeing to shore.

“I got to shore, climbed the big hill at Corning Preserve, jumped over the fence,” he said. “People were coming up to me, giving me free tickets for beer. They recognized me from the news.” The local news media had already done their stories about Trombley’s undertaking.

“And when we were ready to send off, everybody was like, ‘Speech! Speech!’ So I gave some stupid speech. And we all ceremoniously jumped the fence and made our way down to the boat,” he said, recalling with a smirk that “We Built This City” by Starship was playing.

“And we canoed away,” he said. “And it was great.”

A few days later, Trombley and his crew would dismantle the boat and burn it on the side of the Hudson.

“The first two trips, the biggest challenge was nature,” the University at Albany graduate said. Last year, Trombley tried twice to make his way down the Hudson. The first time, the craft sank. The second time, the wind was blowing too hard, negating the tide, which was his only means of propulsion.

“This time, I felt like we had an upper hand on Mother Nature,” he said, “but I hadn’t been planning on human nature. There must just be that many people in the world who enjoy schadenfreude, you know, taking joy in the suffering of others.”

After launching from the Corning Preserve, Trombley and his crew made it to the northeast tip of Bethlehem. They docked at the mouth of the Normanskill, and set off to get supplies. They planned to jump back onboard Saturday morning, catch the ebbing tide, and figured they would make it to Coeymans before nightfall.

“But when we got there, there was no boat,” Trombley said. “Looking around on the ground we found our lantern, walkie-talkie chargers, one of the chairs burned in a fire.” Across the creek, their canoe was sitting on the shore. Pulled out of the water and left.

So Trombley called the police.

“My main concern was this thing weighs 2,000 pounds,” he said. “I was worried about someone knocking into it, not seeing it at night and crashing into it and getting killed, or drifting into somebody’s boat that they have anchored.”

An officer and detective arrived. They found some cigarette butts and beer cans scattered among the crew’s burnt possessions. The sheriff later found the boat upstream, banging against piers in the Port of Albany.

The damage to the boat was severe. The looters had busted off the doors, broken the sail and ripped off the trolling motor. The oars were missing. All of Trombley’s possessions—batteries, bags of clothes, cell phone—were gone.

“Everything was so destroyed that you couldn’t even steer it anymore,” he said. “It would still float, but that was it.” So he and his crew spent five hours Sunday dismantling the craft and burning it in a bonfire on the shore.

The anchor now hangs on a wall in his apartment.

Why has Trombley built a craft three times to sail down the Hudson?

“For the same reason I am going to try a fourth time,” he said. “It’s a challenge.”

He already has plans for a new boat scribbled on a sheet of paper.

“I feel like it is within my capacity to get from Albany to New York,” he said. “But every time there is this unforeseen challenge.”

After thinking about it a bit, he continued: “There’s two kinds of people. When you tell somebody a riddle, there’s the person who says, ‘I don’t know. What’s the answer?’ And then there are those other people who want to come up with the answer on their own. I feel like I am more like the second kind of person.”

—Chet Hardin


PHOTO: Chris Shields

Cleaning House

The Troy Food Co-op, according to its board of directors, is still a few months away from a planned opening in October. In the meantime, volunteers are keeping themselves busy spreading the word, looking for members, and cleaning out the former Pioneer Market at 77-81 Congress St. This Friday (June 30), the co-op hosted a flea market to sell off all of the clothes, records, and other assorted knick-knacks in the backrooms and basement.


Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-



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