Schenectady County

Group fights to keep Maritime Center afloat

To save the dream, Chet Watson needs to find the Capital Region Maritime Center a new tenant.

To save the dream, Chet Watson needs to find the Capital Region Maritime Center a new tenant.

The problem with dreams, though, is that they don’t factor into a poor economy. And for anyone who ever contributed to the dream that the Maritime Center would teach at-risk youths the art of boatbuilding, the economic reality has caught up fast.

Right now, prospects of a new tenant for the center are nil. As board president, Watson has tried everything he can think of since Capital Region BOCES decided not to renew its lease for the center. There have been a few leads since, but some dropped out of negotiations and each ultimately fell short.

“Obviously, with no source of income there ultimately has to be a finite point in time when you can no longer function,” said Watson. “But, at this point in time, that’s still in the future for us.”

Since it was dreamed in 1992 and actually opened in 2001, the center had sustained its goal to build a community and academic center where people, especially underserved youth, can learn about and engage in maritime activities.

But at the end of June, the special education program that made use of it was moved to a wing at Mohonasen’s Draper Middle School in Rotterdam.

And it’s difficult for the center to find a tenant able to meet each criterion of the original goal. One potential tenant might serve at-risk youth, but have no maritime component. Another might have some maritime component, but is not looking for a new place to lease. In certain schools where the program would be beneficial, budgets are too tight to fund transportation to a satellite location.

The center is the only nonprofit maritime center with a riverside educational facility in northeastern New York. It was originally constructed with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and was a collaborative effort involving the town of Glenville, Catholic Charities and Capital Region BOCES.

On a hill in Alplaus overlooking the Mohawk River, the Maritime Center sits unoccupied. Its waterfront — a perfect spot for boaters, meetings or events — is unused.

In the red

Without a tenant to lease the center for $8,000 a month, the center’s board is struggling to find ways to repay $390,000 still owed on its HUD loan, which the town of Glenville makes payments on but expects back from the center. The loan is scheduled to be paid off in 2018.

In addition, the empty facility still accrues costs from insurance, security and electricity. Since it’s currently vacant, Watson said overhead costs run about $600 to $700 a month. But when it was in operation, monthly costs ran anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000.

“At this point in time, we haven’t been able to find an organization that has a program they can simply transplant to our facility,” Watson said. “So what we need is an organization that can utilize the facility, but has a program of its own that would be consistent with our charter and the criteria we have.”

For a while, it looked like the Eximius Academy Charter School was interested. The school submitted a letter of intent to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute this summer to open an elementary school there in the fall of 2013.

The idea was to start with 163 students — 88 in kindergarten and 75 in first grade — for the first year and eventually grow enrollment to 500 students in the fifth year. It would have fulfilled one of the center’s criterion by targeting low-income and minority students from the Schenectady City School District, particularly in the Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods.

But the charter school’s vision was too large for the physical space the Maritime Center could offer at 10,000 square feet.

“There were a number of difficulties associated with the utilization by that organization,” said Watson, “one of which had to do with the ultimate enrollment. They envisioned a fairly substantial enrollment that would require tens of thousands of square feet of space.”

It was perhaps the most promising lead the center had since its lease fell through.

The lead applicant for Eximius Academy Charter School, Pam Swanigan, said, “I’m not in any position to comment on that. There really isn’t anything to discuss.”

New search

Since negotiations fell through in September, nobody has approached the center’s board about leasing the center. So Watson and other center officials have spent the last several months looking for a potential tenant.

They looked to the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vermont for ideas.

“We looked at a number of different programs that deal with at-risk youth there,” Watson said, “one where they build hand-built boats and it’s like a team-building activity.”

They looked at the Peekskill Boat Works, which combines water-related activities, vocational training and educational activities.

In New York City, there were a couple of organizations that help inner city kids and teach them to build “something related to water involvement,” said Watson.

Watson visited the KIPP Tech Valley Charter School in Albany. He checked with the Northeast Parent & Child Society. A former executive director checked out the New York Harbor School in New York City.

Still no leads.

“For one thing, funding is a problem for not-for-profits,” Watson said. “With the state’s current fiscal situation, it’s really difficult for people with the administrative know-how and capability to develop these programs to try to start a new program. Funding is a problem, and so, if they don’t already have a program then they’re reluctant to try to start a new one.”

It’s a shame, said Karim Adeen-Hasan, chief director of diversity and equal employment with the state’s Division of Veterans’ Affairs. He had initially been involved with Eximius Academy Charter School’s efforts to lease the Maritime Center, and he’s simply seen the effort fail too many times.

“I think personally that there’s a need for it,” he said. “If it could happen, we have students not doing as well as they could, and something like this could help.”

Watson believes programs need to be established that incorporate what the Maritime Center has always promoted: not just education, but also interpersonal skills, responsibility and team-building. The restrictions of the center’s original dream, its current charter, has kept a perfectly good facility vacant, however.

Watson said he’ll keep looking for a tenant and hasn’t given up on the dream.

“Of course, there’s a natural affinity for youngsters toward water and boats and things of that nature,” said Watson. “But at this point in time, we haven’t been able to find an organization that has a program like this to simply transplant to our facility.”

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