To judge by past performance, if Afrim builds it, they will come.
After a four-year planning and development process, the soccer entrepreneur behind Afrim’s Sports has the financing in place to build a sports complex of five full-size artificial turf fields off Watervliet-Shaker Road near Albany International Airport, four outdoors and one under a dome.
Afrim Nezaj said work will begin in early 2018 and may be complete by the next peak season, which starts around Nov. 1 each year.
“I would love to be built this time next year,” he said Monday.
Afrim’s Sports already operates three sports facilities: A dome over a half-size field in Glenmont, a dome over a full-size field in Latham, and a building with four smaller turf fields and a fitness center near Wolf Road.
Each is very busy, particularly with athletic clubs that have nowhere else to play.
“Schools cannot meet the demand,” Nezaj said. “They’re swamped. There’s so many more clubs.”
Faced with full schedules at his existing facilities, he bought the land near Memory Gardens cemetery several years ago and proposed his biggest facility yet.
“When there’s too many hours to fill, you build more,” he said, adding that he’s building more than he currently needs. “I’m rolling the dice a bit here.”
Outdoor turf fields can be used about 10 months a year, whenever they’re free of snow, and the indoor fields are available 24 hours a day.
The economics are significant: Ten youth sports tournaments a year, booked with 50 teams each, will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors into Colonie, he said. He’ll have 400 parking spaces on-site and access to 900 more at an office complex across the street on weekends, when most of the events will he held.
About half the teams will be from beyond the region, and some of the parents who come to watch will stay at hotels and eat at restaurants, generating a significant economic impact.
Recognizing this, the town of Colonie Industrial Development Agency is supporting the project with tax incentives: Exemptions from sales, use and mortgage recording taxes, and discounts on property taxes. For the first 12 years of the sports complex’s existence, Afrim Realty Company LLC will make a flat $25,000 payment in lieu of taxes. For years 13 through 20, the PILOT will gradually increase until it equals the amount of the full tax levy.
Nezaj said he would not have qualified for financing without the tax incentives, particularly since the estimated cost of the project escalated over a long period of review and revision. It's now in excess of $11 million, he said.
The delay was due to a variety of factors, he said. “Everyone wants to build in Colonie, so the town moves very cautiously and deliberately.” Also, his site is in the Watervliet Shaker National Historic District, location of the first Shaker settlement in America, so there were archaeological requirements to meet.
As the project stood in limbo, Nezaj received but didn’t entertain offers to sell the site for residential development.
“I’ve had people throw offers at me left and right,” he said. “I could have doubled my money. But my passion is sports.”
Nezaj is a Bronx native who came north to SUNY-Albany to play soccer and study. (In 2008, 26 years after he graduated, the former All-American was added to the college’s Athletics Hall of Fame.)
He liked this area and never left. Nor did he ever pursue a non-sports career.
After five nomadic years in semiprofessional soccer, “I turned my passion into my job,” Nezaj said.
While working at his alma mater’s gym, he began renting space for indoor soccer in the Washington Avenue Armory when the Patroons basketball team left.
“I started with a bunch of friends who just wanted to play,” he recalled.
Nezaj put similar space to a similar use in Schenectady’s Center City before it was redeveloped, and added birthday parties and camps to boost the revenue stream.
He had to leave the armory when the roof was determined to be unsafe, and while looking for a replacement space came upon a dormant tennis facility on Albany Shaker Road. The owner would not do a partial lease, so Nezaj took a deep breath and bought it outright.
“It’s one of those things, you get it and now you say you’ve got to fill it,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, he’ll be saying the same thing at a new sports complex this time next year.