At first, the idea seems a bit far-fetched: allocate space at the landmark Peter D. Kiernan Plaza in downtown Albany for a regional collegiate business incubator.
You might know Kiernan as the former Union Station, the Beaux Arts building erected on Broadway at the start of the 20th century. As train travel ebbed, though, the station was abandoned in the 1960s and sat neglected for two decades before banker Peter Kiernan reclaimed it as the grand headquarters of Norstar Bancorp. But Norstar was swallowed up in acquisitions that eventually put the name of Bank of America on the front door, until that bank decided in late 2009 to consolidate operations elsewhere downtown.
So once again the structure, with its ornate lobby and massive windows, is empty, leaving commercial leasing agents and city officials to ponder its reuse.
Donald Siegel, dean of the School of Business at the University at Albany, has one suggestion: locate an incubator there that would provide physical space and expert advice to students from colleges around the area interested in starting businesses. He thinks such a use might be combined with offering classroom space for continuing professional education and certificate courses, helping to inject a new population — graduate and undergraduate students — into downtown.
Siegel knows those ideas alone wouldn’t sustain the building. At 125,000 square feet, it needs an anchor tenant or tenants to cover the rent. An information technology company might fill the bill (years ago the building was outfitted as a bank data center); a catering or events-management firm could make good use of the lobby.
To Siegel, though, the opportunity would be in promoting entrepreneurship to students. “I think we need to do this, I really do,” he says.
Siegel, who teaches an undergraduate course in entrepreneurship at UAlbany, reports that 50 percent of students say they’re thinking of starting their own businesses — but many fall short of that goal.
He conceived of the incubator, dubbed CREATE (Capital Region Entrepreneurship Accelerator for Technology and Enterprise), after being approached by representatives of the real estate investment group that owns Kiernan Plaza, wondering if UAlbany might have any interest in the building.
At the time, he was involved in meetings with leaders from other local colleges, who were brought together by Congressman Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, to talk about collaboration and innovation. Then, over the summer, Siegel took a group of college deans to tour the building, and says they were excited about what they saw.
Now, a marketing survey research class at UAlbany is developing a business plan for CREATE, and will report on the feasibility of a downtown incubator by May.
If any of this sounds familiar, it should: finding ways to integrate colleges and their host communities is always under discussion. In the 1990s, for instance, Capitalize Albany, a committee charged with boosting the city and downtown, talked about locating a graduate student center in the old Wellington Hotel on State Street with room for classes — and perhaps even dormitory space — for interested colleges. The thinking then was as it has been before: that students can add money and vitality downtown.
So an incubator focused on drawing students to the city core — and helping them create businesses, too — may not be that implausible after all, even at Kiernan Plaza.
“I’d love to do something like this,” Siegel says of CREATE. And housed in a marquee building like Kiernan, it probably would be the first of its kind in the country. “I don’t want to do something ordinary,” he says.