|By Tim O'Brien, Albany Times Union,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 1, 2007 - ALBANY -- A 400-room Sheraton hotel will be built as part of the Albany Convention Center project, with the center itself to be run by the same firm that operates the county's Times Union Center.
The authority's board chose Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide Inc. of White Plains to run the hotel Friday, while SMG was selected to operate the convention center.
The two once worked cooperatively in Providence, R.I., one of the sites authority leaders consider comparable to what they hope to accomplish here. Starwood no longer owns the Westin Providence, but SMG still runs the convention center there.
"We felt they were the best fit for Albany, and their credentials were second to none," said Brad Rosenstein, who led the committee that recommended the firms' selection. "There was no question they were the most outstanding choice."
SMG operates more major convention centers than any other firm in the United States, Rosenstein said.
"As far as we're concerned, this is a great day for Albany," he said.
Bob Belber, regional manager for SMG, said the convention center in Providence -- unlike many others -- turns a profit.
"SMG will do anything we can to use our resources to book conventions, trade shows and events that can also utilize the Times Union Center," he said.
Still to be resolved is the cost of the project, which officials now estimate at $325 million. The board expects to get detailed cost estimates early in 2008 and may then be asking New York state to provide additional funds to cover the increased costs.
Authority leaders dropped a plan to demolish a Green Street parking garage and now want to add a deck with room for 212 cars. A 1,000-space garage is planned for underneath the center and hotel.
One item that will be presented as an add-on option is a proposed skyway to the Times Union Center.
"We started off with some grand ideas, then we have to bring that back to reality," said Authority Board Chairman George Leveille.
Belber said the skyway could be critical to attracting certain events like NCAA basketball tournaments.
"They look to have fan festivals. They look to have that in an adjacent area," he said.
The decision was not without controversy.
The Coalition for Economic, Environmental and Educational Justice had wanted to participate in negotiations to be certain the firms had strong records of affirmative action.
Carolyn McLaughlin, a coalition leader and majority leader of Albany's Common Council, said the decision set a bad precedent.
"You have gone and selected a convention center operator and a hotel operator with no input from the community," she said.
Leveille disagreed, saying consultant Deborah Williams-Muhammad, a founder of the Capital Region chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, participated in all the sessions. Earlier this year, her firm contracted with the Albany Convention Center Authority to do a community study of local minority-owned and woman- owned businesses to help the authority look for contractors.
Leveille said the authority has set aggressive hiring goals throughout the center's planning, construction and operation, and the firms have committed to meeting them.
The current plan is for groundbreaking to occur in late 2008 or early 2009, with construction taking about 28 months, Leveille said. That schedule can change depending on how long it takes to secure additional funds. O'Brien can be reached at 454-5092 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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