SCHENECTADY — Stakeholders are playing hardball over a conceptual athletic field and entertainment complex at Mohawk Harbor.
A faintly-outlined proposal to build a facility at Mohawk Harbor was zapped from the final list of Schenectady Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) projects poised to receive state funding earlier this month.
But that hasn’t stopped a regional coalition of theaters and entertainment facilities from lodging their formal opposition.
The Upstate Theater Coalition for a Fairgame issued a letter this week calling the project “concerning” and said such a complex would “economically endanger their organizations,” particularly amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has prohibited large-scale gatherings since mid-March, effectively casting the entertainment industry into a deep freeze.
“None of the members want their business models to be undermined as a result of unfair competition,” wrote Wendy A. Marsh of law firm Hancock Estabrook on behalf of Fairgame.
The letter was submitted to the office of Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and directed to the 16-member Local Planning Committee (LPC) guiding the state DRI process.
Fairgame urged panelists to take a “contemplative look” at the potential economic consequences for the area if the Schenectady arena provides concerts.
“Specifically, we ask you to consider how the proposed event center would be economically harmful to all Fairgame members in the Capital Region.”
Signatories include the Palace Theater and the Times Union Center in Albany; the Troy Music Hall in Troy; the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Saratoga City Center in Saratoga Springs, as well as Proctors in Schenectady
(Fairgame is administratively housed at Proctors, and CEO Philip Morris is a member of the LPC.)
The Local Planning Committee met for the final time on Thursday to discuss the proposed DRI projects in Schenectady. They’re now required to submit ballots to the state signing off on the portfolio of final projects by Sept. 2.
The ballot contains a bundle of 18 projects totaling $13.5 million.
Not among them was the arena project.
Galesi Group originally sought $2 million in state funding for a $35 million proposed entertainment and sports complex that economic officials described as a “dome or small arena.”
But that project was pulled out of contention weeks ago because it wasn’t shovel-ready. Despite the removal of the arena from the list of DRI-funding contenders, developers say they still intend to pursue the plan once the pandemic has subsided.
Fairgame was formed amid the establishment of casinos in upstate New York, including Rivers Casino & Resort, which agreed they wouldn’t build entertainment complexes that would compete with theaters, namely performance spaces larger than 1,000 seats.
According to the letter issued this week, arenas operated in conjunction with casino properties “undercut” competition by paying higher guarantees for concert artists than those paid by regular promoters.
Bob Belber, general manager of the Times Union Center in Albany, pointed at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, which he said siphoned concerts away from both Hartford Civic Center and Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, Rhode Island, upon opening in 2001.
"When that facility opened up at Mohegan Sun Casino, they lost 85 percent-plus of their concerts,” Belber said in a phone interview on Friday. “It came as a cost not only to the owners of facilities, but to the local business establishments that are in the surrounding areas of those facilities who lost millions and millions and continue to lose millions and millions of dollars as a result of that entertainment venue.”
Mohawk Harbor developers Galesi Group and Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority have said the proposed arena is not intended to compete with regional entertainment venues.
Both parties have said that while it’s too early to pinpoint the seating capacity, the venue would be smaller than SPAC, which can accommodate 25,000 people, and the Times Union Center, which seats 17,500.
Galesi Group simply wants to best utilize their 20 acres of remaining green space, said Galesi Group President and CEO David Buicko.
“Anything we do we want to complement what is already in the Capital Region,” Buicko said. “Whatever we do at Mohawk Harbor is designed to bring more people to Schenectady and service the Schenectady community.”
Fairgame does not apply to the Galesi Group and Mohawk Harbor, but rather Rivers Casino, which is located at the waterfront complex, said Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen, and any facility built, paid for and owned by the developers on their land is not subject to the agreement.
Gillen pointed out that Metroplex and Schenectady County have provided almost $15 million in grant funding directly to Proctors.
“In fact, we believe that we are the theater’s single biggest benefactor,” Gillen wrote in a formal response to Fairgame. “For anyone to suggest that we are anything but supportive of Proctors is just simply not true.”
Metroplex also pays for Proctors parking and covers recurring annual costs for security and maintenance in the area surrounding the theater, Gillen said.
Mayor McCarthy, who serves as co-chair of Schenectady DRI with Buicko, acknowledged the letter came in late.
"My gut is people are overreacting to a proposal,” McCarthy said.