LATHAM — Twenty years after the last audience drove out of the parking lot at the old Starlite Theater, the excavators have rolled in.
A ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony was held Monday, with dignitaries using gold-toned shovels to dig into a pile of sand heaped on the scarred asphalt.
The real work begins later this week. If all goes according to schedule, financial services firm Ayco will move into a new 150,000-square-foot headquarters in early 2020.
Ayco was formed in Colonie in 1971 and became a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs in 2003. The bulk of Ayco’s roughly 800 employees work in two existing locations in Colonie, but its current headquarters is in Saratoga Springs. All three Capital Region locations will be consolidated at the new headquarters on Columbia Street Extension when the $24 million building is complete.
The Ayco building is being built by the same team that built Galesi Group’s Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady: LeChase Construction Services and Rifenburg Companies.
Ayco CEO Larry Restieri said Monday that the site is ideally located: a few hundred yards from the Northway, a few miles from the intersection of interstates 87 and 90, a short distance to Albany International Airport and not far from the Amtrak station in Rensselaer.
“We looked at a number of locations,” he said. “This is the site that just made the most sense in terms of being centrally located and close to amenities. What we’d be really excited about is additional amenities coming in. We’re hoping that as we come in as an anchor, there’ll be additional retail that comes in.”
The new headquarters, which will host several hundred highly-paid employees, was a prize eagerly sought by multiple economic development agencies and developers.
Schenectady-based Galesi Group won out with the help of a variety of local and state economic incentives. A critical piece of the puzzle — a state grant to build a $6 million connector road to reduce already-congested traffic in the area — was denied.
So Galesi Group will pay for the 2,000-foot roadway between state routes 9 and 9R, and recoup some of the costs from traffic mitigation fees paid by other developers. Galesi’s own mitigation fees for the project will be about $1 million.
Galesi CEO David Buicko said vehicular traffic, a frequently cited concern about the project, is a sign of economic activity. “Traffic is not a bad thing, if done the right way and properly planned,” he said.
Buicko on Monday saluted the history of the site, which as the Colonie Tent Theater, then the Colonie Coliseum, then the Starlite Theater hosted inumerable shows and events between 1958 and 1998. Johnny Cash sang there, Mike Tyson fought there and George Carlin cracked jokes there, all from a revolving stage surrounded by a 3,000-seat theater in the round.
Buicko recalled going there himself as a Siena student many years ago.
But the Starlite sat vacant and crumbling for more than a decade before it was demolished in 2012, clearing the way for redevelopment.
Buicko’s assessment of the Starlite site as the best location in the region seems undercut by the fact that nothing was done with it for 20 years — the saplings foresting the site are taller than the people who gathered Monday to celebrate the groundbreaking.
Buicko explained that the previous owner of the site was not as aggressive in seeking redevelopment as Galesi, and then Galesi was very selective about who it recruited.
In Ayco, Buicko said, they have the tenant with the critical ability to draw further retail, office and residential development to the site and the immediate surrounding areas. And Ayco is confident enough in its growth curve that it has taken first option on Phase II of the project: another 150,000-square-foot office building.
If Ayco declines, Galesi will build it on spec and find other tenants to fill it, Buicko said.
The two office buildings and their parking lots will sit on approximately 60 acres; another 60 acres is earmarked for residential development, but Buicko said this is further off in the future. When the first office building is done, Galesi will assess the residential market to see what to build, and when.
A significant portion of the approximately 120 acres is undevelopable wetland. Buicko said walking trails will be created there, possibly linking with trails the Century House has built on its own property.