There was a time when the desire for a major convention center in Albany made some sense.
However, it has been 20 years since that idea was first floated.
Over the intervening time, the state has demonstrated a profound reluctance to provide the financial support necessary to complete it, the city has been unable to generate enough critical public and private backing locally to even commence construction, the plans for it remain in a state of mercurial flux, and a large, potentially productive section of public land downtown remains in a prolonged and embarrassing “bombed out” condition. If these circumstances haven’t convinced city planners by now of the impracticality of this blueprint, maybe we have the wrong city planners.
Moreover, the whole concept of “conventioneering” has changed over that time. There are fewer conventions and most are smaller and shorter.
Governments and businesses have greatly constricted their budgets for such things. Fewer employees are allowed to go and those that do are usually there for a brief appearance on a panel or to attend a key session or two, no longer as a reward for a job well done or even a pseudo-working vacation as things were in more generous times.
This is the proverbial square peg trying to fit into a round hole. If it weren’t, the convention center would have been built by now. Besides, for the most part the space would be empty with only occasional spurts of activity — and we have enough of that in downtown Albany already.
If Albany truly wants to work toward being a seven-day, 24-hour city, a largely antiseptic, inaccessible structure catering to a narrow demographic would not appear to be the way to go.
That’s why it’s such a head-scratcher when an intuitively viable plan to create an aquarium, Imax theater and sci-tech museum in that downtown space is dismissed with a sniff by the Albany Convention Center Authority chair. (OK, given his position, maybe such a reaction is to be expected.)
The Omni Development Inc. plan, however, seems such a no-brainer. There isn’t an aquarium within 173 miles of Albany. When the Capital Region’s schools book the inevitable educational trips to one, it’s an exceedingly time-consuming and expensive proposition to travel to Brooklyn, Boston or Mystic, Conn.
An aquarium in Albany clearly would become a magnet for schools from western Massachusetts to Rochester, from Poughkeepsie to the Canadian border. And it would be telling a story of this area, their region, rather than that of the Atlantic Ocean or Long Island Sound.
When one hears “aquarium,” one first thinks about fish. However, aquariums are principally about water — and water and everything about it is the key issue for our century. As cited by the National Resources Defense Council, swelling demand and changing climate patterns are draining rivers and aquifers, and pollution threatens the quality of what remains.
We live at a unique confluence of a river — the Mohawk — and a tidal estuary — the Hudson. An aquarium focusing on the study and exploration of these waterways and their vast watershed, including the fish, wildlife and the people who depend on them, would be a unique educational and environmental resource.
Furthermore, these waters cascade through a wealth of prominent related topics and activities including history, transportation, commerce, public health, wildlife and natural resources, environmental protection, recreation and tourism.
As an example, linking the aquarium’s Hudson-Mohawk focus conceptually (but not physically) to the excellent and similarly centered city history museum in Quackenbush Square — about which far too few seem to know — would add a supporting cultural perspective. (Doesn’t the Historic Albany Foundation’s recently acquired 48 Hudson St. — dating to the city’s Dutch roots in the 1720s — lie within the parcel under discussion?)
One can readily perceive a variety of other valuable potential synergies among the region’s education, environmental research, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), history and tourism entities. The State Museum, the Albany Institute of History and Art, other city and regional museums and historic sites, state agencies such as EnCon and the Canal Authority, the region’s numerous higher educational institutions, each with their own specific interests and specialties, all could contribute to building a set of cooperative resources greater than their constituent parts.
Indeed, properly conceived and developed, the aquarium could be the linchpin that finally joins an understanding of the interrelationships between and among the region’s diverse and rich natural resources, glorious local and nationally significant history and budding sci-tech future. It also would have the capacity to generate a similar ripple effect for the other cities of the Capital Region and their stories.
Furthermore, this enterprise would be about people and families — an “all ages, all walks of life” appeal that a convention center couldn’t begin to approach. Restaurants and hotels would benefit.
City and county sales tax revenues would get a boost. And the renewed, sustained economic activity would generate jobs as individuals “enterprise” ways of enticing the curiosity of this new traffic.
Of course, it is wise to have a reasonably timed and conducted study of the Omni plan; but its focus should be to decide how, not whether, to prudently proceed. It is not cynicism to point out that so-called “feasibility” studies are where good ideas all too often go to die for reasons having nothing to do with their efficacy.
Finally, facilitating research and educational resources suits the role of government far more than serving as a hotelier and meeting catalyst for private industry. All this and 20 years with nothing to show says let’s build the aquarium.
If we do, they will surely come.
John A. Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.