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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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March 14, 2013

A Casino In The Convention Center

The mayor stubbornly pushes
His money-draining boondoggle by any means at hand

Albany mayor Jerry Jennings showed up this year as he almost always does at the February Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) meeting at the main library. This annual visit with the NAs has always been the only time the public can meet His Majesty face to face and ask questions unfiltered by middlemen. Only His AM radio show comes close, but like all electronic media programs the radio show provides plenty of room for an experienced public official to duck and hide.

There’s not much room in the library to hide from the CANA representatives. So in His remarks Jennings talked about economic development, mentioning His buddy Andrew in the Governor’s office. Then we heard He wants Andrew to give the City more funding for education, that is, verbally attaching Himself to the education funding initiative just launched by newly elected State Assemblymember Pat Fahy. And then He mentioned that infernal unending boondoggle, the Albany Convention Center.

“I told the State economic people,” he said without preamble, “that I don’t want a casino in the Convention Center unless the City of Albany gets a big cut of revenue. I think 50 percent is reasonable. They just looked at me like I was crazy.”

Wait, what? He wants a what in where?

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings In The South End
Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings In The South End

For everyone who hasn’t been following this, Jennings has been hotter than hot to build a Convention Center in the South End next to the downtown area since His first mayoral campaign in 1994. The proposed site is mostly a wasteland of parking lots that only occasionally get used, a testament to the glut of parking spaces in this City. But not all is wasteland, the site contains our miserable little bus station and what is probably the oldest complete building in Albany, 48 Hudson Ave.

The Albany Convention Center Authority (ACCA) was officially established in 2004 and immediately became a patronage black hole into which millions of dollars of public funds routinely disappear. There have been State grants of cash, an on again off again Albany County hotel tax, and City of Albany taxpayer funded assistances that are too numerous to enumerate. And even though the proposed Con Center keeps getting scaled down and as time goes on becomes less likely to be built, the ACCA continues to absorb tax money at an alarming rate and continues to produce nothing worthwhile.

After a decade it has become more than obvious that it doesn’t matter to our City leaders if the Con Center gets built or not. Politicians, you see, express power with money. Whoever gets to distribute money is the puppeteer who pulls the strings. Like all too many Authorities in this State, the ACCA is first and foremost a money funnel, a vehicle for patronage. Only incidentally is it a means to an end.

Promotional Photo From Saratoga Casino Website
Promotional Photo From Saratoga Casino Website

At the CANA meeting my jaw slowly dropped as I started to comprehend what He was saying. “We need to compete with casinos proposed for nearby communities,” he continued. “There’s one proposed for Springfield in western Massachusetts, we don’t want to lose out on that revenue.” We don’t? Later, several people mentioned to me that it was funny that He forgot to mention the operating casino in Saratoga Springs, which is a mere 35 miles from Albany. Among other attractions, that casino has 1700 slot machines.

This is not the first time Jennings has mentioned this casino in the Con Center idea, he floated it almost casually back in 2011. But this is starting to sound serious. Could this be because the Con Center idea itself is on the rocks and needs a jump start, like a rusted minivan washed up on the shore? Could it be that Andrew himself, who is promoting the casino idea statewide, has suggested it to Jennings?

Governor Andrew Cuomo Announcing His Support For Non-Indian Casinos, Albany 2011
Governor Andrew Cuomo Announcing His Support For Non-Indian Casinos, Albany 2011

I could start ranting here, about how the multiplying legal gambling venues are in sharp competition with each other for a shrinking gambling dollar, and how some traditional gambling centers like Atlantic City in New Jersey are literally falling to ruin. Even in the best of times casinos have usually proven to be economic development failures for the municipalities in which they are located, at least as bad as convention centers. As real income continues to shrink for poor and middle class people due to corporate looting, we can expect to see less and less disposable income directed toward gambling.

As for the alleged economic benefits to the rest of the community provided by gambling centers, the term “collateral damage” is more accurate. As has been widely noted in Saratoga Spa during horse racing season, visiting gamblers spend their cash on betting, fast food, cheap lodging and almost nothing else. Meanwhile, other retail businesses suffer through the season. I don’t think Albany retailers deserve such abuse.

And let’s not forget that government sponsored gambling is effectively a tax. Sure, it’s a voluntary tax, but it is directed at the bottom third of society, toward the people who are least able to afford another flat tax. And please don’t tell me that rich people will be flocking to Albany to gamble. This is a scheme to further impoverish the lower income locals, which makes a casino another impediment to economic development.

Current Convention Center Proposal: Blank Walls And Wasted Space
Current Convention Center Proposal:
Blank Walls And Wasted Space

When the original Con Center plans were unveiled in 2004, almost every elected official jumped forward in front of the cameras to endorse the project. And why not? They all wanted a piece of the action. Almost no public official went on record opposed to the plan, no one wanted to be cut out of the patronage.

The corporate media was enthusiastic, they treated it like it was a done deal. Albany representatives Jack McEneny and Ron Canestrari, two of the most powerful members of the NY State Assembly at the time, were publicly enthusiastic. And most importantly, then governor George Pataki endorsed the idea, which means the proposal had the support of Republican Party boss Senator Joe Bruno. It seemed impossible to oppose and it sounded like cash was about to flow like water.

Well, nine years later there’s still a sea of lightly used parking lots around the bus station but the political landscape has changed severely. We’ve had three governors since Pataki, and Joe Bruno has fallen from his throne, spending his retirement years fighting to stay out of prison. All three governors have struggled to deal with a State budget that does not have cash to spare for speculative boondoggles.

Albany Convention Center Site In 2007
Albany Convention Center Site In 2007

As of the beginning of this year, Jack McEneny and Ron Canestrari retired from their Assembly seats and have been replaced by Pat Fahy and John McDonald, respectively. Both freshman representatives have had to deal with political realities in order to get elected. And one big reality is that while the old boy politicians and the corporate media want to impose the Con Center on the South End of Albany, almost none of their constituents want it. At least, not as it has been designed and presented.

The Con Center site is in John McDonald’s newly outlined district, and he also happens to be my representative. The next night after the February CANA meeting I caught him at the monthly Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association (DANA) meeting at the Delaware Avenue library branch. At least 50 people packed into that meeting room including a half dozen elected officials. DANA is a very lively and active NA.

Mr. McDonald told us that he is opposed to a casino in the Convention Center, “a very bad idea.” The entire room erupted into sustained applause and cheering. I quickly looked around and it looked to me like the approval was unanimous. I expect that the half dozen elected officials attending also took note.

John McDonald In My Neighborhood On ML King Day
John McDonald In My Neighborhood On ML King Day

During his campaign this past election I heard Mr. McDonald express support for the Con Center during a public forum. I was not pleased to hear this, my opinion of him at the time dropped a few more notches. That, coupled with his vague and nonexistent positions on the issues during the campaign made me deeply suspicious of him, along with a much repeated story that he is some kind of right wing anti-government teabagger. I’d even been told that by several elected officials.

But since his election to the 108th Assembly District (effectively the Democratic Primary in September) the former mayor of the City of Cohoes has shown none of this sort of reactionary behavior, at least not that I’ve seen so far. For instance, he told the Delaware crowd that he is working closely with colleague Pat Fahy of the 109th Assembly district on an issue close to her heart, equitable funding for education available for inner cities. He explained that as a mayor he became very aware of this problem.

“Now, I don’t want to say anything bad about charter schools,” he said cautiously, referring to those private for-profit schools that subsist exclusively on taxes. “Some 20 percent of kids in Albany attend charter schools, but about 45 percent of State aid to education in Albany goes to the charters. I think this is grossly unfair and needs to be changed.” If the man was a teabagger he certainly wouldn’t have brought up this expensive inequity, in fact he would have denied it existed.

Harmony Mills In Cohoes, A Derelict Factory Building Converted To High End Apartments
Harmony Mills In Cohoes, A Derelict Factory Building Converted To High End Apartments

After the meeting I cornered him and asked him about the Convention Center, I say I had to ambush him. At some public function a few months earlier Jack McEneny warned Mr. McDonald to avoid talking to me, actually right in front of me with his back turned, making faces at Mr. McDonald while the new Assembly member grinned uneasily at both of us. Jack was never too subtle at that sort of thing, The Wife could teach him a thing or two about effective public signaling.

His back literally against the coatrack on the wall, Mr. McDonald took a deep breath and repeated to me his support for the Convention Center but, he added, he wanted to see a different design. “This is an opportunity to construct an urban center, mixed use with amenities and opportunities for small businesses,” he said. “And housing should be part of the design. You can’t collect taxes from the taxpayers unless the taxpayers have someplace to live.”

I was so delighted I shook his hand, and said, “You know how long I’ve been waiting to hear an elected official say that?” (About 20 years.) Indeed, during his time as mayor of Cohoes, that City added thousands of housing units, both high end and low income. As a result, with the last census Cohoes had a population increase of 5 percent, the first rise since 1930. Imagine that happening in Albany.

Pat Fahy In My Neighborhood On ML King Day
Pat Fahy In My Neighborhood On ML King Day

As for Pat Fahy, who took over what more or less used to be Jack McEneny’s district in Albany and some of the western suburbs, she told me that a convention center “has to be part of a comprehensive plan or it won’t work.” That is, it won’t bring in any jobs or revenue to the City. She also wants to see “ a transportation hub remain a piece of this as well,” something which so far gets talked about but doesn’t ever seem to get included in any of the actual proposals.

As for a casino, Ms. Fahy is “somewhat skeptical of the economic developments and job generating merits in the long term.” Only somewhat? But she doesn’t think a casino fits in with any sort of comprehensive plan. “Hard to imagine casinos in Albany ever being a part of this and I do not see how this would help,” she said. I suspect that Jennings wishes He had gotten things moving before the two old boys McEneny and Canestrari retired from the Assembly.

Mayoral Candidate Kathy Sheehan
Mayoral Candidate Kathy Sheehan

Okay, even announced mayoral candidate Kathy Sheehan has expressed support for the Convention Center, arguing that there is a desperate need for a large meeting space in downtown Albany. At the public meeting several months ago where I heard her say this, I challenged her by pointing out that the current proposal is not designed to benefit the community, and that it would take a major redesign to turn it into something that would benefit the taxpayers. (I hope the commenters who accused me of “hero worshipping” Ms. Sheehan take note of that.)

But Ms. Sheehan, like Mr. McDonald, understands that Albany desperately needs housing so that it can stay, or rather become solvent. Even Jerry Jennings has been forced to give lip service to the concept, even hinting to the crowd at CANA that He’d like to have a more urban friendly Con Center with housing units. But that was clearly balderdash, I haven’t heard that He has ordered a massive redesign of the basic suburban playground concept to be more neighborhood usable and friendly. Nor will we.

And that’s His Majesty’s big problem, the ACCA has not produced anything tangible, good or bad. The authority has absorbed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars paying salaries to itself, commissioning studies and buying plots of land. While it would be perfect for the politicians if this money funneling machine could be left to run indefinitely, the public has become impatient. In fact, an awful lot of people I’ve been talking to lately think that the Con Center is a dead issue.

It’s not dead, but top level political support for the thing has dissipated with both time and the effects of public opinion. Not only has the Con Center lost both Assembly supporters, but Senator Neil Breslin, an early supporter, has become very quiet about it lately. A decade ago Mr. Breslin pushed through the State Senate several key bills establishing the authority. It’s hard to tell where he is right now, but his enthusiasm seems to be gone.

Convention Center Site, March 2013, Tuesday At Noon
Convention Center Site, March 2013, Tuesday At Noon

Meanwhile Albany treads water. Other than a few dozen new high end units downtown, and the recent Albany Housing Authority initiatives which are excellent but so far are mostly replacement housing, the Albany City government can’t quite grasp the connection between housing and tax revenue. All we ever hear from mayor Jennings is how we need more State aid to balance His budget. And how we need a Convention Center.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made numerous Con Center funding promises to Jennings, including most famously during his inaugural address in 2011. $75 million was originally promised in 2005 by former governor Pataki. $10 million of that promise was handed over in 2008, you know that bit of pocket change has long been frittered away. That leaves $65 million in promises, hardly enough to erect parking garages for the suburbanites.

The original grandiose proposal quickly ballooned up to $400 million, mind you that was in 2004 dollars. Today’s more scaled down proposal is a mere $220 million in 2013 dollars, but this past October Jennings admitted to the corporate lobbying group Albany-Colonie Chamber of Commerce that it was “unrealistic for us to think that the State is going to free up a quarter of a billion dollars." Reportedly His comments caused alarm and despair among the salaried employees of the ACCA.

The Sad And Pathetic Albany Bus Station At The Con Center Site
The Sad And Pathetic Albany Bus Station At The Con Center Site

So today we are hearing about further “scaling back” and “bringing in private partners” to get something going that people can see. But it still doesn’t seem to be occurring to His Majesty that a convention center could only be useful and profitable if it is part and center of an urban community integrated into the existing neighborhoods. This is something we have desperately needed for a long time, something that could conceivably be sold to developers who would want to see a return on their investments.

Really is this rocket science? I suppose if the State was backing the project then speculators would flock to the project and cover it like maggots on a carcass no matter what it was. But those days of unlimited local government largesse are over. The corporations have moved our jobs to China, and locally the taxpayers are running out of places to live, so there are fewer taxpayers paying less taxes all the time.

If Jennings wants responsible investors to converge on the project, a convention center is not enough. Convention centers by themselves are proven money pits that never pay for themselves, just look at Jim Coyne’s “Times Union Center” a few blocks away. Us taxpayers will never stop subsidizing that thing, and the currently proposed Con Center will be the same thing. We will never stop paying for it.

The word is out that a whole new proposal for the Con Center is going to be unveiled in the next few weeks. We may or may not hear about a casino proposal, and we may very well see a few chimerical “urban amenities” thrown in to quiet the local taxpayers. I seriously doubt that it will be anything more than the same blank walls turned toward the City neighborhoods and the same quick auto ramps connected to the highways leading in and out of town so nobody who visits the Con Center has to look at the run-down neighborhoods of Albany.

Jerry Jennings Voting In 2009
Jerry Jennings Voting In 2009

At the end of mayor Jennings’ presentation at the CANA meeting, after he had answered questions and was trying to exit, I shot up my hand and shouted, “Mr. Jennings!” He froze, looked at me with surprise. “When will we find out,” I asked Him, “if you are going to run for another term?”

I have a habit of doing that to mayoral candidates. Several waves of alarum passed over His face in quick succession, and He automatically quipped, “What, are you the press?”

Well, yeah. Several CANA representatives laughed and shook their heads, “That’s Dan” I heard someone say. I waited patiently for His answer as did everyone else. Finally, with a mighty grimace, He said, “You’ll find out when everybody else does.”

Fair enough. As of right now no one knows if Jerry Jennings is preparing for one more term, or if He is merely scrambling to shore up His legacy. I don’t think even He is sure at this point.

But one thing I know for sure. if anybody wants to see Jerry Jennings’ mightiest accomplishment, just head out Washington Avenue Extension or drive the Thruway west and look up in the sky. That mountain of garbage, almost all of which is imported from outside of Albany, is the Rapp Road “Landfill.” When Jennings is gone to Florida, when the Convention Center proposal has receded into an embarrassing memory, that mountain will still be there, reminding us of the mayor who left us such a mess.


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Posted by:GAH
Posted on:03/16/2013
I couldn't agree more.

Governments need to s**t or get off the pot when it comes to using gambling and lotteries as a way of generating revenue. Either it's an effective, morally defensible way of generating revenue, or it isn't. If it is, why not just add a check box to everyone's annual income tax forms--"Do you want to add $x toward a state/national/local lottery?" Heck, maybe it could even be used as an incentive to get people to file on time. Or whatever.

Building casinos is simply a waste of money.

Posted by:Cincinnatus
Posted on:03/27/2013
I never accused you of "hero-worship"....only misplaced faith. I do understand the phenomenon, as it was only a few years ago that the nightmare of W. fooled me into believing in "hope." I have since learned my lesson.

You challenging her is exactly what people need to do with all politicians and holders of power generally. So, for whatever it is worth, thank you.

Posted by:Woland
Posted on:05/07/2013
So do they work on the assumption that if we build it somebodies will come? Why choose San Francisco, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta, or Dallas when you can come to grey Albany, right?

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