ALBANY — Funding to build a new facility for the state’s Wadsworth Center is included in the Assembly and Senate budget proposals, and a coalition of area leaders is trying to make sure it’s also part of the final 2021-2022 budget.
Wadsworth currently is spread among four facilities in the Albany area and the $750 million project would consolidate them into a single state-of-the-art location on the state Harriman Campus, adjacent to the University at Albany.
The plan originally was backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018 but it has gone nowhere after two successive rounds of bidding, and Cuomo did not include it in the budget proposal he released in January.
The lab has proved of vital importance to the state amid the COVID pandemic over the past 15 months.
Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, gathered a large group of labor, business and political officials in a park near the proposed site of the new lab to advocate that it be built, and built there.
Neither prospect is certain: There have been proposals to put the new lab elsewhere, or break it up into regional operations, or not build it all right now. The one-house budgets approved by the Senate and Assembly both specify the Albany location but both are potential casualties of the three-way budget talks with the Cuomo administration that will yield the final budget.
The facility has received attention during the pandemic, often as the generic “Wadsworth Lab.” However, it describes itself as not just a laboratory but a science-based community working in several ways — research, investigations, certifications, education, analysis — to protect and improve public health. It was established in 1901 in Albany as an upgrade of the state’s Antitoxin Laboratory to better protect New Yorkers from communicable diseases of that era, including anthrax and diphtheria. It was later renamed the Division of Laboratories and Research and takes its current name from Dr. Augustus Wadsworth, director from 1914 to 1945.
For more than a year now, its staff has been working on the greatest public health threat to face the state in a century: The COVID-19 pandemic.
That point was made repeatedly Monday. As public displays of support go, Monday’s was very large and diverse:
- Placing the lab in Albany is important not only for the city’s economy, Fahy said, but to maintaining a critical mass of expertise on-site. Wadsworth has gained national renown because the people who work there are more effective collectively than individually. And the work needs to be done, she said: “These were always known as world-class labs, but the facility has been outdated for years by all accounts.”
- University at Albany President Havidan Rodriguez said placing the new Wadsworth on the Harriman campus would benefit from and deepen UAlbany’s three decades-long partnership with Wadsworth and the state Department of Health. “The COVID-19 pandemic once again demonstrated how critical the relationships are between public agencies and the university researchers to keep informed our response to emergencies.”
- Mike Lyons, president of the Greater Capital Region Building and Construction Trades Council, representing more than 20,000 unionized construction workers, said the project would be a boon to employment here.
- Mike Elmendorf, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, said the project would generate more than 1.7 million hours of work and be the largest public construction project in the area since the Empire State Plaza was built.
- Anthony Gaddy, president and CEO of the Upstate New York Black Chamber of Commerce, said the lab, and its continuing partnership with the University at Albany, would help the region retain the young talent it trains.
- Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said: “If this doesn’t show us, these last 54 weeks, why we need this laboratory, why we need to invest in it, I don’t think anything will.”
Afterward, Fahy said she hasn’t determined whether Cuomo no longer supports a new Wadsworth facility or whether he dropped it from his budget plan for other reasons.
Assemblyman John McDonald III, D-Cohoes, said once the budget authorization specifies that the new Wadsworth be built in Albany it can’t be relocated for convenience, politics or other reasons without legislative authorization. It won’t be as specific as GPS coordinates, but the lab has to be built in Albany.
His understanding from the state Division of the Budget is that the Cuomo administration remains committed to Wadsworth, but is still evaluating the future of brick-and-mortar workplaces after the COVID pandemic, which has seen so many people switch to remote working.
The Capital Region economy has four strong legs, McDonald added: Government, education, technology, and health care, all of which are at play in the Wadsworth Center and its work.
Coupled with the human expertise living here, there’s no better place to build a replacement.
State Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, whose district stops just short of the proposed construction site, acknowledged the downstate tilt in state leadership and the perennial push-pull of geographic priorities. But she said her chamber’s leader — Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers — is wonderful at giving senators balance and an equal voice and recognizes there are inequities upstate, especially in rural areas.
“She wants to make sure that we’re building a state that works for everyone,” Hinchey said. “I feel confident that as long as we can kind of keep the pressure on, we have a good balance point to the need to drive things downstate.
“Everybody wants the investment but … this is where it makes sense, this is where the expertise is.”