Schenectady County

Big House project falls through

After three years of delays and more than $3 million spent in private and public funding, the Big Ho
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After three years of delays and more than $3 million spent in private and public funding, the Big House restaurant project has died without serving a single customer.

Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen confirmed Tuesday that there is no restaurant taking shape behind the papered-up windows of 411 State St. Instead, his development agency has been searching since January for businesses that want to lease the 9,000-square-foot space.

The news came as quite a surprise, particularly since Gillen made no mention of it when he responded to county Legislature questions about the long-delayed Big House project last month.

The change in plans stayed quiet until Monday night, when Metroplex critic Joseph Suhrada ran across a real estate listing for the site. The listing specified that the century-old building lovingly restored by owner Stephen Waite is not for sale — but the first floor is up for lease.

But Suhrada, a Republican county legislator, leaped on the listing as proof that Metroplex had wasted its money on the project.

Metroplex gave Waite a $1 million, 15-year loan, a $250,000 facade grant, $50,000 to remove asbestos from the building and a $100,000 loan toward a tax payment under the Empire Zone plan.

Waite has also invested more than $1.6 million of his own money in the project. However, he said Tuesday that he was never dedicated to the idea of a restaurant. He just had to come up with a project so that he could get the money to do what he really wanted — turn the basement into a club.

“But that was the basement. It’s a four-story building. We couldn’t just open the basement,” Waite said. “To get the financing, we had to propose what made sense, but the restaurant was never our focus. It was just a means to an end.”

Waite said he will put his law offices on the fourth floor. No plans were discussed for the second and third floors.

SUHRADA CRITICAL

Suhrada said Waite shouldn’t have asked for money to build the Big House restaurant if he didn’t intend to open the business.

“I feel like he’s used this zero-interest loan to make a real-estate flip. He’s fixed it up, now he can lease it,” Suhrada said.

Metroplex has worked with many developers to rehab derelict buildings like 411 State St. and then market them to business owners, so Waite’s new formula is not unique. But Suhrada said Gillen should have announced the change in plans as soon as Waite backed away from the restaurant project.

“I think Ray Gillen should’ve been upfront with the people of this county,” Suhrada said.

Gillen met with the county Legislature in March and discussed the Big House project, but never mentioned that the restaurant was dead. He focused on the club instead.

One bright note amid the disappointing news is the response from other business owners. Retailers — not restaurateurs — are eager to move into the building, according to Gillen.

“We’ve had tremendous interest from other retailers,” said Gillen, who thinks a retail establishment would be far better for downtown than yet another restaurant.

“We love restaurants, but we need other kinds of retailers. We want to diversify the retail mix,” he said.

Waite, however, is still holding out hope for a tenant who will open a restaurant. But he acknowledged that the space makes such a use awkward: It’s just too big.

“It’s narrow and it’s long. The kitchen was scheduled to be in the back and the operators were very, very concerned. We’d have to run people 250-plus feet from back to front,” Waite said. “We thought, maybe we can rent the back portion. … That’s how the whole thing got started.”

After he missed three announced openings — the latest was last summer — Waite apparently gave up on the restaurant idea altogether. He said he was persuaded to lease when retailers kept calling to ask for his rates.

“At first we just said, ‘No, we’re really not interested,’ ” Waite said. But the calls kept coming.

In December, he asked Metroplex to find someone to lease the space, Gillen said. Metroplex has been showing the building to retailers since January.

The response has been promising. One prospective tenant even brought in a construction crew last weekend to determine how much it would cost to install the counters and other furniture needed for his store, Gillen said.

He added that Waite has set a reasonable rate — $12 to $15 per square foot — and has finished the interior work.

“All the sprinklers, the really tough stuff, is done,” Gillen said. “All the retailer needs to do is pick out the colors. It’s ready to go.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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