SCHENECTADY – Developers were set to accelerate an ambitious entertainment and sporting complex at Mohawk Harbor this year.
But the COVID pandemic instantly upended the landscape in mid-March, shuttering Rivers Casino & Resort, battering the economy and creating a lingering fog of uncertainty.
Local panelists guiding Schenectady’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) will meet for the final time Thursday to consider the final portfolio of projects to submit to the state for $10 million in grant funding.
Not among them is the Galesi Group’s $2 million request for a proposed $35 million complex described in project materials as “sporting arena, retail, entertainment and food/beverage space.”
While the concept was left out of the funding package because it was not “shovel-ready,” the project is still very much alive and remains in the evaluation phase.
“Right now, we’re on pause,” said Galesi Group CEO and President David Buicko. “It’s still a project we’d like to do.
“Maybe we can revisit new construction in 2021.”
Over the past decade, the Galesi Group has transformed a polluted 60-acre strip of industrial waterfront into what Buicko says is the top destination in the Capital Region, a complex containing a blend of outdoor recreation, dining and an amphitheater that has only swelled with (socially distant) outdoor activities amid the pandemic.
With investments at $550 million so far, 20 acres remain available for further development.
Buicko says the proposed entertainment and sports complex is just one part of a planned second phase of development.
Over 95 percent of Mohawk Harbor’s River House Apartments are now leased, and based on that demand, Galesi is eyeing a second apartment complex along the waterfront.
The Capital Region Aquatic Center, which also wasn’t recommended for state funding, continues to raise funds for a proposed facility.
Future development for both facilities would be situated in the green space between Rivers Casino’s Landing Hotel and River House Apartments.
A series of trails would connect each location, and waterfront access will be preserved for the public.
“We want to make it all interactive,” Buicko said.
Details on the proposed entertainment and sports complex have not been previously reported, including its prospects for use as a regional athletic center.
Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen said economic development officials have been discussing how to accommodate sports teams and fitness groups at the new facility, which he characterized as a “dome or small arena.”
A number of sports teams and programs have expressed interest in leasing space, he said.
“We have met with soccer, hockey, basketball and other sports groups looking for practice and game facilities,” Gillen said. “The access to hotels, downtown, the new train station and other amenities has been a plus in these discussions.”
Rumors have been percolating for months about Union College seeking a new site for hockey operations.
Buicko was non-committal.
“Right now, there’s nothing beyond being aware of what some of their needs are,” Buicko said. “But they’re dealing with COVID now” too.
Union College echoed similar sentiments.
“While the College continues to be open to possible options for the future of our hockey facilities, our focus right now is on navigating this global pandemic to provide the best and safest experience for our students, faculty and staff,” said Union College spokesman Phillip J. Wajda on Tuesday.
Gillen pointed at increasing television production at the nearby Armory as evidence for a need for training and game space. And prior to COVID, officials were also eyeing space for conferences, trade shows and other networking events — even themed restaurants, he said.
The development of a sports and entertainment facility at Mohawk Harbor would exclusively be the work of the Galesi Group, not Rivers Casino & Resort, which means the developers wouldn’t have to adhere to a previous deal in which casinos agreed to refrain from providing entertainment that would directly compete with local theaters — including Proctors.
“From day one — from [our] first meeting with Rush Street Gaming — we said we did not want to replicate a theater facility at the Harbor and the owners agreed,” Gillen said.
The Galesi Group, Buicko said, doesn’t intend on competing with regional venues, but rather aims to fill an existing need in the Schenectady market.
“We don’t want to compete with venues like the TU Center, SPAC or Proctors or anything like that,” Buicko said. “This is a Schenectady amenity, and this is creating other opportunities for Schenectady.”
Nearby large-scale facilities include SPAC in Saratoga Springs, which can accommodate 25,000 people, and the Times Union Center in Albany, which seats 17,500.
Officials said the proposed venue at Mohawk Harbor would be smaller, but haven’t yet arrived at a specific capacity.
“Everyone wants to keep it small,” Gillen said. “We were never talking about anything that’s a large audience.”
Proctors’s MainStage can seat 2,646, and the Palace Theatre in Albany, 2,800 people.
Despite not securing its $2 million request, panelists guiding Schenectady DRI will include the proposed complex in the final report that will be submitted to the state this fall.
It’s inclusion, along with other projects like the Electric City Co-Op and Capital Regional Aquatic Center, will flag it as a concept deserving of a closer look from other funding sources.
“Hopefully there will be future rounds of economic development funding and other sources of support,” Gillen said. “But the vast majority of financing comes from the private sector.”
The central element of Schenectady DRI is connecting downtown with Mohawk Harbor, and several projects have been recommended for funding by the consultants guiding the effort will enhance connections between the two locations.
Those include biking and hiking trails and the reopening of North Jay Street between Jay Street and Erie Boulevard.
Despite the economic downtown and the continued closure of Rivers Casino, officials have reason to be optimistic:
Over 95 percent of Mohawk Harbor’s 206 units are leased, and 90 percent of the complex’s 75,000-square-feet in office space is occupied, leaving just two slots open: a 5,000 square foot and 3,500 square foot office space.
The Shaker & Vine is nearing the end of an expansion project, Gillen said, while interest is surging for outdoor activities, including boating and kayaking.
The Capital Region Aquatic Center is also moving forward and has crossed the midway point for the $34.5 million price tag.
Despite not securing funding, the outlook of the project remains positive, said Kara Haraden, president.
“We have been in touch with city and county leaders, as well as our public and private partners, all of whom remain committed to seeing this project across the finish line,” Haraden said on Tuesday.
Capital Region Aquatic Center has recently retained a national marketing firm to help secure long-term naming rights opportunities, Haraden said, which will help close the funding gap.
“That, along with the donations we continue to receive, will be key to being able to break ground on the project at Mohawk Harbor.”
Whenever it happens, sustained development is critical for positive momentum, said Buicko, who pointed at other projects that are reshaping downtown, including Mill Artisan District, Electric City Apartments and several efforts by Redburn Development Partners — including an ambitious plan to reshape Clinton Street that has been tapped as a priority by Schenectady DRI.
“It’s not just about building more apartments,” Buicko said. “It’s about creating something for people to do… We’re creating a space where people want to come, which is good.”