In January, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan joined other mayors of upstate cities as part of the annual “Tin Cup Brigade” at the legislative budget hearing for local governments. Sheehan sought $12.5 million for the next five years to fill a critical gap in the city’s budget. While Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to amend his executive budget to close the city’s funding gap with emergency aid, Albany still faces serious economic challenges.
A mid-2014 audit by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found Albany has higher-than-average poverty rates, despite being home to numerous higher education institutions and the state Capitol. In fact, as the home of state government, 59 percent of Albany’s full value is tax-exempt – a significant challenge for city government, Sheehan said.
But instead of dwelling on the challenges brought by the lack of state and federal funding, Sheehan said she chooses to focus on the improvements she is able to achieve to build on the investments already being made in the city.
One example is the recent opening of the $48.5 million Renaissance Hotel across from the state Capitol, which will ultimately connect via walkway to the Albany Capital Center, the new convention center in downtown Albany scheduled to open in 2017.
“New residents are not going to see the river as a barrier as previous generations would have. They’re going to want to go back and forth and to have that connection.”
- Sarah Reginelli, president of Capitalize Albany
“Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the Renaissance and there along Wellington Row. Those were all facades. There were no backs to those buildings. That building sat empty for a better part of a decade,” Sheehan said. “We’re looking at infrastructure investments as, ‘What can we do to enhance the investments that are already being made here?’ There’s no shortage of really creative, great ideas for doing that, and I think they’re the types of investments that send a message.”
While the tax-exempt property has long been a burden on Albany, being the state capital has brought benefits and new investments. The city’s more stable workforce has allowed it to avoid some of the challenges faced by other upstate cities, where the decline of the manufacturing sector hit hard and employers moved out. The Capitol region has about 20 higher education institutions and Albany Medical Center. Additionally, the city houses the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, a multibillion-dollar nanotechnology institution.
“Unfortunately, the decline here has been a little slower and steadier and government has been downsizing, so the percentage of our workforce that works in state government has been shrinking and it is having an impact. Because we had a proactive approach to attracting tech and sort of rebranding ourselves as tech valley, we were able to attract new jobs and new investment to offset that loss,” Sheehan said. “(The SUNY Polytechnic Institute has) really brought in a workforce that is international in scope and I think is helping to drive demand for downtown living.”
While developers revitalize the city’s warehouse district near the Hudson River, Sheehan is focusing on making that area more appealing with its Impact Downtown Albany plan. One goal of the plan is to repurpose a railroad bridge, which was built in 1903 and is set to be replaced within the next five years, into a pedestrian walkway that would connect to the Rensselaer side of the river.
“This is a need we’re turning into a want. It needs to be replaced, we were told it’s going to be replaced, so let’s do it in a way that’s going to enhance Albany,” Sheehan said. “This is an infrastructure investment that then incentivizes the development of under-utilized property on that side of the river, on this side of the river, because you have that way of attracting people down here, of connecting them back and forth and, again, of thinking of the other side of the river as just an extension of the community.”
“We’re looking at infrastructure investments as, ‘What can we do to enhance the investments that are already being made here?’ There’s no shortage of really creative, great ideas for doing that, and I think they’re the types of investments that send a message.”
- Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan
Sheehan cited the Walkway over the Hudson as proof of its potential to drive economic development and tourism. The Walkway over the Hudson, a bridge that connects Dutchess and Ulster counties, opened in 2009 and has nearly 500,000 visitors annually.
“There’s something about water that draws people. It’s an excuse to come into the city for a day and enjoy the Hudson,” Sarah Reginelli, president of Capitalize Albany, said. “New residents are not going to see the river as a barrier as previous generations would have. They’re going to want to go back and forth and to have that connection … To show the amenities on both sides of the river, as well as the river, would be a huge selling point for both of the downtowns.”
Although Albany didn’t see the same decline in manufacturing as other cities, its warehouse district, a once-bustling area downtown near the waterfront, is home to many empty buildings that city officials believe are ripe for revitalization.
“We have less and less of a need for square footage for commercial office space. We were rich in (business and commercial) space, we have a lot of material to convert to new apartment units in our downtown and we’re seeing tremendous success for that. People are flooding into our downtown,” Reginelli said. “Developers are really looking with a critical eye at these buildings to understand what they could be turned into based on the market that we have.”
In May, beer brewer Druthers Brewing Company opened a second location in Albany’s warehouse district after the success of their first location in Saratoga. Chief Brewing Officer George de Piro and his business partner Chris Martell were looking for a location with a high population density and a population with disposable income – which he says Albany has.
“Nothing was working until we came down to his area,” de Piro said. “Our place in Saratoga, while a very nice location, is a brand new building. It’s just sheetrock, and we put up some barn wood to make it look warmer, but you don’t get the same atmosphere that you get with an old building like this. It’s really cool to have the old rafters and old brick showing.”
That’s key to Sheehan’s plan to revitalizing the city – building upon the infrastructure that is already there.
“When you demolish and take away the bones of a city, it’s not a city anymore,” she said. “What people like about the cities in upstate is that they’re authentic, and so oftentimes we just need that extra bit of help or incentive or grant to make a project to go from not achievable to actually being achievable – and the results are unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”