Welcoming The Capital South Campus Center

May 11, 2013

A new college building is dedicated in my neighborhood, and Jerry Jennings may have a flukey idea to replace the unwanted Convention Center

If you only want to read about Mayor Jennings’ plans for reelection, jump to here.

*UPDATE* Jerry Jennings will not run again!

These groundbreakings and dedications are getting more and more frequent in the South End, so much so that down this way these politician lovefests are becoming ordinary. Okay, this one really is a big deal. They are building a college in my neighborhood, about a five minute walk from my house on the other side of Lincoln Park. For real.

They’re calling it the Capital South Campus Center, or CSCC. Both Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) and Schenectady County Community College (SCCC) will offer classes in the new building for two and four year degrees. In addition the building will have a daycare center available for students, along with several community service organizations. Also significantly, the State University (SUNY) administration will have an office presence in the building.

Albany Politicians Agitate The Mound Of Dirt At The "Groundbreaking" For The New Capital South Campus Center, May 2, 2013 Albany Politicians Agitate The Mound Of Dirt At The "Groundbreaking" For The New Capital South Campus Center, May 2, 2013

Actually, the ground was already plenty broken, this was more properly a dedication ceremony. From attending plenty of meetings over the years (some of which I was not welcome to attend but did anyway) I can tell you that planning for this goes back many years, and the decision to bring college level education to the South End goes back to 2007. It has taken that long to make this building project a reality, and the process has been incredibly complicated.

So how important is this project? One of the most notable speakers at this event was Jaime Forero, Director of the Albany Field Office for the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD.) Mr. Forero made it clear that he was standing in for HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who had come to Albany the week before to observe the project (among other things) but could not make it to the May 2nd event due to scheduling conflicts.

Jaime Forerro, Regional Director Of HUD, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy And Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro Behind Him

Jaime Forerro, Regional Director Of HUD

“This unique project is a model and an example for the nation,” Mr. Forero said in an understated manner. “This has gotten the attention of HUD Secretary Donovan and he is watching it closely.” Mr. Forero was introduced as “the money man,” he wryly noted “Everyone loves the guy with the money.” He made sure to praise President Obama for directing federal cash toward such urban revitalization.

Actually the money was awarded almost two years ago, it’s what got the project off the ground and happening. The amount on the giant cardboard check on an easel was relatively piddling, $4,983,822.00 drawn from HUD’s Capital Fund, one of only ten such grants awarded competitively nationwide. Compared to the trillions that the President has happily given corporate parasites like Goldman Sachs this comparatively small amount is almost embarrassing, but at least some federal cash is being invested in something useful for a change.

The guy who finagled the cash out of the feds is of course Steve Longo, the director of Albany Housing Authority (AHA). Mr. Longo is well-known among housing administrators for his innovative work in cobbling together funding out of small grants for projects such as this. When Mr. Forero referred to this project as a model, he was referring as much to Mr. Longo’s innovative grant management techniques as to the actual college building itself.

Steve Longo With The Ever Glamorous Nell Stokes-Holmes Steve Longo, With Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, Common Council Members Dominick Calsolaro And Barbara Smith

The idea for a downtown Albany community college in the South End came from community meetings initiated by AHA, discussions which resulted in a 2007 planning document called Capital South Plan: SEGway To The Future. The unfortunate phrase “Capital South” was invented by a downstate consultant hired to prepare the plan, the idea was that the name “South End” has negative connotations and needs to be “rebranded.” Whatever. The silly name games aside, the plan has a lot of good ideas that build on the traditional strengths of the South End, and is currently serving as the blueprint for redevelopment of our neighborhoods.

The hired consultants told the City government that my neighbors wanted two things, housing (fix the vacant buildings) and access to higher learning. (They also told the consultants they wanted a supermarket and more local retail, but somehow that got forgotten.) To everyone’s amazement, unlike so many other plans produced by hired consultants over the decades, the City has actually been trying to satisfy these two demands.

The Ground Behind The Tent Was Already Very Broken The Ground Behind The Tent Was Already Very Broken

The finding that my neighbors wanted a community college was a surprise to the City government, but not too me. I’ve seen how the young folks around here often try to get a better eduction so they can get ahead. But lack of a good job means not enough time or money to attend a full four years at an expensive university, so the good practical alternative is to take courses at a community college.

But the closest community college is HVCC across the river in Troy, a 20 minute car drive with no traffic and more than twice as long by bus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched young folks in my neighborhood juggle several low paying jobs and family obligations and at the same time try to handle the regular commute to HVCC. More often then not, the first time their clunker of a car breaks down or their spouse’s job schedule forces them to watch the kids they drop out of school.

After all, food, shelter and family come first, education is the most expendable, especially since lengthy commuting is a luxury best handled by rich people with time to waste. Inevitably after dropping out of classes that are too far away to handle, these folks feel like utter failures. I have always considered commuting to be a perverse and unreasonable requirement for any economic class, I am very glad that I live and work in an urban neighborhood and don’t have to commute in order to survive.

Crowd Attending The Groundbreaking Crowd Attending The Groundbreaking

The surprising thing to me is how many other people have come to agree with my opinion on this matter. My neighbors, community activists and even local government officials seem to understand how distance makes educational progress practicably unattainable for many of the citizens of the South End. Like they say, location is everything. That’s because accessibility to resources is the key to success.

As for the housing crisis, the Albany City government certainly didn’t need to pay a consultant a quarter million dollars to find out that people wanted a reversal of the City’s longstanding policy of encouraging downtown neighborhoods to disintegrate. Nor should it have been a revelation that us regular folks put great value on having walkable, bikeable and economically diverse neighborhoods. But I guess when us citizens offer our two cents we ought to act like downstate consultants and charge top dollar for our opinion, we’ll get better results.

Snarky comments aside, to my surprise it seems that the City was listening and starting to look for solutions to the problems that it had created. I won’t go into all the political reasons for this change of attitude, I’ve gone on enough about all that on this blog. Suffice to say that public community activism has grown exponentially in the South End, and as a result the unnecessarily poor condition of our neighborhoods has turned into an acute political embarrassment for our elected officials.

Some Of The Politicians: Mayor Jerry Jennings, Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, Dan McCoy, Dominick Calsolaro, Common council Member Barbara Smith, Assembly Member John McDonald, Treasurer and Mayoral Candidate Kathy Sheehan, Senator Neil Breslin Some Of The Politicians: Mayor Jerry Jennings, Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, Dan McCoy, Dominick Calsolaro, Common council Member Barbara Smith, Assembly Member John McDonald, Treasurer and Mayoral Candidate Kathy Sheehan, Senator Neil Breslin

Of course, when you get a dedication like this for something that everyone wants and is also approved of by the big boys in the federal government, you are guaranteed to get every politician in the vicinity to show up and be seen by the media. And that’s what happened, all the locals were there. Plus in the big crowd watching the ceremonies was just about every single person who has or had something to do with the project.

But funny thing, none of the TV stations were there. The only cameras I saw were the personal ones and a few in-house setups. Jordan from the Hearst Times Union was there, but because he was the only corporate media worker present his story that appeared in his newspaper was short on details and buried. Once again this blogger was an important part of the media event by default.

I didn’t see that any big news worthy events happened that morning that would have diverted the attention of the corporate TV, no big fires, planes hijacked by right wing terrorists crashing into the Corning Tower or anything like that. So where were the corporate content providers? Why were all these politicians left in a vacuum by the corporate media, on a sunny weekday at an event where free food was being served?

One can only conclude that the corporate media managers decided to bury this story of positive development of the South End. Yes, they will send their cameras to a dedication for a subsidized housing project, that sort of thing feeds into suburbanite prejudices toward the South End. But the development of a center for higher learning that is going to put my neighborhood on the map? I guess that has to be pointedly ignored.

Joann Morton, President Of The South End Neighborhood Association Praises The Project Joann Morton, President Of The South End Neighborhood Association Praises The Project

The big wonder is that all these colleges are suddenly very interested in having a presence in the South End for the first time. In fact, several colleges were falling all over each other to get into the building, and I understand that the ones that didn’t get in are watching this whole thing very closely. Last year there were even stories going around about how the planned building was already too small and how there might be no room for the service organizations and daycare.

There was no chance of that happening, these funding packages always come with provisions that certain community services be provided with the project, so room for them had to be found. The daycare is the most important of these services, as one speaker noted “you leave your child on the second floor in good hands and attend classes on the third floor.” This is a recognition that having to watch the kids has been one of the biggest reasons why South End students have dropped out of college.

I suspect that eventually these other community organizations that have little to do with higher learning, such as Senior Services, will be moved out of the building as soon as the funding requirement timetables are met. I mean, Meals On Wheels can be anywhere. But the daycare, that’s not going anywhere. That is very much part of the school.

outhBuild Kids Are Learning Construction skills With This Project YouthBuild Kids Are Learning Construction skills With This Project

Over the past year I’ve been hearing about the negotiations to bring the colleges into the building. The details as they happened were confusing, but I do understand that community colleges are compensated for tuition costs by the county in which they are holding classes. This is how tuitions are kept low at local colleges, and yes our local taxes go to pay for affordable higher education for my neighbors. Fine with me.

From the explanations that I’d heard, originally this project was to be a vehicle primarily for HVCC, which would have allowed HVCC to collect money from Albany County in addition to Rensellaer County where they are located. But HVCC started arguing with Albany County, holding out for more money. The County balked, and for a while there was noise that the beginning of construction might be delayed until a settlement was reached.

But then several other colleges came nosing around looking for that Albany County money, most notably Schenectady County Community College (SCCC.) I also heard rumors about Sage Colleges and SUNY Albany and even Saint Rose showing genuine interest, they probably were and probably still are. How exactly this matter was resolved is a mystery to me, but with so much competitive interest in the project the Albany County politicians were in a good position to negotiate.

Come More Of The Crowd, City Of Albany Commissioner Of Planning and Development Mike Yevoli Next To Pole Some More Of The Crowd, City Of Albany Commissioner Of Planning and Development Mike Yevoli Next To Pole

In the end, HVCC was forced to settle for a reasonable funding package from Albany County. Plus, now they have to split the building with SCCC, which is currently undergoing an aggressive expansion policy, building dorms in Scotia for their students and offering a wider curriculum. I suspect that if HVCC had not tried to strongarm extra cash out of Albany County then they could have had the whole thing to themselves.

But wait a minute, what’s going on here, why would all the colleges be so hot on entering the South End and establishing a presence? Usually we see money making operations such as colleges, big established churches and the Capital District YMCA looking for reasons to scale down services or exit the City of Albany altogether. These big institutions head for the suburbs where they can feed off the big consumer dollars and the really massive government subsidies that are found in the suburbs.

In addition, the residents of the South End have one of the lowest average and mean incomes in the region and has among the highest number of high school dropouts. The attraction of county tuition subsidies aside, what makes us attractive to colleges all of a sudden? Why would these colleges want to bring higher education to a place where students are low income and undereducated, thus unattractive?

The Giffen Public School Outreach Community Choir Performs Their School Song The Giffen Public School Outreach Community Choir Performs Their School Song

Well, registration of new students is declining at all colleges, and from what I understand small local colleges are feeling this problem the hardest. Competition for new students is acute for all but the most prestigious big schools. The experts are saying that over the next decade this problem for existing schools is only going to get worse, which leads me to believe that affordable higher education may all but disappear as local colleges go out of business.

Part of the problem is demographic, there are simply fewer 18 year olds looking to enter college after high school than, say, five years ago. But a big factor is the ongoing effects of the Great Recession. As low income and working class people are squeezed more and more by rising corporate taxation they have fewer resources to spend on luxuries such as attending college.

The community colleges, which draw heavily from a lower local income base for their student population, are the hardest hit. Therefore these local colleges need to scramble and innovate to keep their tuition rolls up as well as their income. That is why CSCC is coming along at exactly the right time and attracting so much interest, the established colleges need to tap our mostly untapped South End market. They can’t afford to turn their noses up at us, not anymore.

Current Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings Current Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings

The usual thing here is that City of Albany mayor Jerry Jennings presides over the ceremonies and is the most visible center of attention, and all the other dignitaries praise Him as the savior of the City. Indeed He was scheduled on the agenda in the third speaking spot right after the general introductions, and was introduced by Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin as “Albany’s biggest booster,” about which I will let pass and say nothing.

But there was so much going on that His Majesty was mostly sidelined after His remarks. Normally He would have remained the center of attention but somehow He seemed disengaged, and in the end He became all but invisible. The biggest and most gratifying perk of being the mayor is that you get to be the center of attention, but somehow that wasn’t happening here.

As of this writing Jennings has not announced if He is going to be running for another term as mayor. Unsubstantiated rumors flew around the crowd that He was going to announce His reelection at this event, which was unlikely because that would have been pretty crass. Another version had Him announcing later that day, which wouldn’t have made much sense either. Of course neither happened.

Current CDPHP Building On Patroon Creek Road, Which May Be Abandoned Current CDPHP Building On Patroon Creek Road, Which May Be Abandoned

A more substantial rumor about Jennings’ reelection plans has popped up in the last few weeks, substantial because I’ve heard it from several elected officials. It seems that the HMO called Capital District Physicians Health Plan (CDPHP) has been applying for a loan from the City Industrial Development Agency for plans to build an eight story office building that will supposedly employ 1500 people. Basically, they’ll be abandoning their current headquarters out on Patroon Creek Road inside the City of Albany and instead move to downtown.

The rumor? That the office building will be built on the site of the proposed unwanted Convention Center here in the South End. The plan is for Jennings to make a big splash with His reelection announcement by simultaneously announcing the relocation of CDPHP from one part of Albany to another. It would also serve as His solution to the problem of how to deal with the increasingly embarrassing boondoggle Convention Center that is almost certainly not going to get built but is still sucking taxpayer cash at an alarming rate.

Now, why would CDPHP want to move across town and build a new building? The answer is simple. According to Treasurer and mayoral candidate Kathy Sheehan, the ten year tax abatements for the Patroon Creek building are pretty much running out. In order for the HMO to continue to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes to the City they have to move into a new building and collect a whole new set of abatements.

Culinary Students From Abrookin Vocational Tech Center Feed The Atendees Culinary Students From Abrookin Vocational Tech Center Feed The Atendees

As for the 1500 jobs that they will bring to the South End, those are all taken. CDPHP will merely be moving existing employees across town, bringing a whole new pile of suburban commuters arriving downtown daily by car and leaving their emissions in our neighborhoods. And it is unlikely that very many of these suburbanite employees are going to relocate their residences to downtown Albany and start paying taxes to the City because lack of housing in downtown is one of the key unanswered problems of the 20 year Jennings administration.

So it looks like Jennings did His old back room handshake with the corporate principals and gave them another low or no tax deal if they do what He wants. I’m sure it will play well in the media as an announcement, the incumbent mayor as a forthright leader bringing jobs and development etc. if you don’t think about it too much Well, a massive office building surrounded by a sea of parking lots that pays no taxes is an improvement over the current Con Center proposal. But not much of one.

The only problem with this scheme is timing. It appears that this whole thing is so flukey that constructing a cross town move while keeping the IDA loans and tax abatements legal is quite complicated. Oh it can be done, but apparently not fast enough to coincide with Jennings’ reelection announcement. He’s not fool enough to announce a deal that might blow up in His face because it was not finalized at the time that He announced.

Dan McCoy And Jerry Jennings Listen To Joann Morton Dan McCoy And Jerry Jennings Listen To Joann Morton

Who knows, perhaps this is why it is the middle of May and He hasn’t announced His intentions yet. The beginning of June is His drop-dead deadline because that’s when petitioning starts for candidates seeking office. At this time it’s starting to look like He has decided not to run again but is concealing His decision until the last possible second. Then again, like I said, who knows.

Besides Kathy Sheehan, who was present at this groundbreaking but was not invited to grab a gold-painted shovel and agitate the ceremonial mound of dirt, there are two other declared candidates for mayor at this moment. One is the main 2009 challenger Corey Ellis, who is running again with no money, fewer supporters than last time and still no public persona. The other candidate is a fellow named Marlin Anderson, who wears great shoes and can often be quite entertaining with his sarcasm and attitude, but can’t be called a serious candidate.

So unless Jerry Jennings makes a reelection announcement before the end of this month then we can pretty much count on Kathy Sheehan being our next mayor. But if He announces a rerun Ms. Sheehan is in an excellent position to beat Him. This is the first serious challenge to His job since Jack McEneny ran against Him in 1997 and He may not be up to it. Maybe that’s what’s going through His head right now.

CSCC Groundbreaking, May 2, 2013 CSCC Groundbreaking, May 2, 2013

But out on the edge of Lincoln Park on a beautiful spring day with the flowering trees blooming and the community garden across the street coming back to life, it was almost like business as usual. But not quite. Better educational opportunities are coming to the South End, and for that to happen a lot of things had slip out of the current mayor’s control. But even if He is not in complete control anymore Jerry Jennings was still at the center of attention at this event, and in the end that’s what counts.