What can you do with an 86,000-square-foot landmark built like a fortress?
Plenty … but it might take a while to figure out what and how.
The former Schenectady Armory has come into its own as a winter sports venue, with day and night practice sessions and games providing enough rent to cover the costs of operation, and the owners are now working to expand it as an entertainment and meeting venue in the spring of 2017.
Cousins Ray and Jeff Legere bought the imposing Washington Avenue structure at auction in 2012 as the state was selling off a number of armories while consolidating military operations in newer facilities. The last National Guard unit had vacated the armory in 2008.
After beating out two other bidders and buying the armory for $260,000, the Legeres marveled at their good fortune in securing a unique space for about $3 a square foot, with 4-inch-thick wooden front doors and 26-inch thick brick walls, and a 150-by-180-foot main room whose wooden floor alone would cost $750,000 today. The wiring was recently replaced and asbestos removed.
It also had a leaky roof and an obsolete flood-damaged heating system. And it was, essentially, a white elephant, with no obvious reason for being. A 2011 auction hadn’t even attracted the minimum $395,000 bid.
“We spent two years figuring out what the possibilities were,” Ray Legere said, “didn’t put a thing in it for two years, knowing that if you go down the wrong path, it’s hard to undo.”
He continued: “Our decision was to turn it into a multipurpose event center, and I’m proud to say, after two years, we’re still on target.”
The Legeres’ experience is in construction and disaster recovery, having run Legere Restorations for more than 30 years. There’s no history of promotions or event planning in that time, and the Legeres aren’t going to start now — the plan is to provide a good space for events, then partner with experienced promoters to fill the space without damaging the facility or disturbing the neighborhood.
“Our goal is to get the community entrenched in the place and bring people into Schenectady County,” Ray Legere said. He’s excited about The Mill Artisan District, which is being planned a stone’s throw away on lower State Street and will be the beneficiary of a $2.35 million state grant announced last week.
Legere spoke with The Gazette on Tuesday afternoon in the cavernous building, quiet at the time because there were no baseball or soccer teams playing, and no work being done on the new elevator that will improve handicapped accessibility.
The building, built in 1936 during the depths of the Depression, is not as ornate as some of its older cousins across the state but its straight lines enhance the sense of solidity and open space. Military unit markings from years gone by still dot the walls here and there, along with new signs imploring athletes not to play in the foyer while waiting to get on the indoor field; kids kicking a soccer ball smashed some of the original light globes, though identical replacements were found online, remarkably enough.
In its new incarnation, the armory has hosted lacrosse, soccer, baseball, women’s tackle football, cricket and frisbee practice and competition. An MVP Health Care event drew more than 800 people arriving on shuttle buses. An amateur mixed martial arts event drew close to a 1,000 people. There have been conferences, banquets and small group meetings, as well.
Legere said he has solid leads on 15 conferences or conventions for the next two years, any one of which has the potential to bring tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.
“The goal is to get people in the building,” he said. “We’ve slowly been trying our hand at different things. We’re hoping to have some concerts in the spring.”
The concerts are a more delicate proposition than conferences, as some genres of live music have a reputation for drawing rowdy crowds. Legere said he wants to avoid this, but by selecting the right promoter rather than selecting the right performance. The barricade systems and security personnel in place for the event are a bigger factor in crowd behavior than who is on stage, he said.
“As I explore more and more into the genres of music … even the ones that I don’t like the music, they’re normal people. They just happen to like horrible music.”
Legere recalls that the MMA event at the armory was a good learning experience for him.
“I’ve never seen a more gentle crowd in my life — they’re amazing,” he said. “It was like a family. It was amazing to see all these rough-and-tumble [fighters]. They know each other, it’s part of a circuit.”
Work on the armory continues, four years after the Legeres bought it. Last year’s big project was the heating system, a roof-mounted high-efficiency unit that replaced the original steam boilers still sitting in the basement, inoperable after the summer storms of 2011. An elevator shaft is being created now. The roof needs to be replaced, and work done on the capstones atop the massive walls. Heat and air conditioning need to be extended to the smaller chambers in the armory that are important for attracting a wider range of events.
The series of alterations is designed to expand the capacity from 2,200 people to 4,500, and there’s ample room to do it. The balcony alone holds 750 seats and is larger than the main stage at Proctors. There are former weapon lockers, a garage, shooting range, non-commissioned officers’ mess hall and various offices in the basement, plus nicer spaces like the veterans lounge upstairs.
The owners are taking on all of the work unencumbered by a mortgage and benefiting from a 10-year declining property tax break that was extended to give them time to transition the formerly tax-exempt military installation into a viable event space.
“We’re actually getting our bills paid through the winter sports,” Legere said. “From November through April we’re booked solid.”