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County Comptroller Suggests Selling TU Center Would Ease Burdensome Debt

WAMC photo illustration by Dave Lucas

Albany County’s comptroller says the county should consider selling the Times Union Center.

Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners

The downtown Albany venue is $175 million in debt, according to Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners. The Democrat told the Times Union for a weekend story that it would be in the best interests of taxpayers to put the 28-year-old arena on the market. Republican County Legislator Rich Mendrick:  "I actually floated this idea about six years ago, so I am very much in favor of it."

Conners, who is out of the country and unavailable for comment, told the newspaper the county pays about $5 million annually on the new debt resulting from recent upgrades. He fears the county "will be forced to borrow again for renovations, repairs, or upgrades,” adding he doesn’t  “think it’s the business of local government being involved in the entertainment business.”    "We are in the business of running government. We should not be in the entertainment business, as Mr. Conners points out. This is better handled through a private entity. We are currently using a private entity to run the facility, so it's very logical that the next step would be to sell it to a private enterprise."

The 17,500-person arena, managed by Philadelphia-based SMG, opened in January of 1990 as "The Knickerbocker Arena," with a performance by Frank Sinatra. It was later branded "Pepsi Arena" until 2006 when naming rights were sold to the newspaper.

Numbers cited by the Times Union indicate the TU Center is operating in the black with more than 535,000 people having attended 114 events there last year.  County Executive Dan McCoy told the paper that with the revenues the TU and Albany Capital Center bring in plus the bed tax, the debt is covered.

Democratic County Legislator Doug Bullock agrees the TU Center is "doing just fine..."   "...in the immediate business cycle, in terms of getting new sports events and events inside the Times Union Center. I think the debt paid out with the bed tax is a fair and just way to finance the TU Center, that's where most of the financing is coming from."

Bullock says the idea of privatizing the TU Center smacks of "Trumpian politics," similar to President Trump's scheme to privatize the U.S. Postal Service.   "The post office does not need to be privatized. The Times Union Center does not need to be privatized.  They both serve a really important public function, they both bring in revenue and have funds to back up their existence."

Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber

McCoy's office referred WAMC to Times Union Center general manager Bob Belber for comment. Belber's company SMG has managed the facility since 1990.    "I think Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners is a brilliant guy and I commend him for trying to find ways to save money for the county. I think he's done a great job over his career, he's been there a long time, so I don't wanna sound negative in any way shape or form about his idea of potentially selling it, but I think that it is a gem for Albany County and with Albany County owning it and controlling what's going on in it, certainly they have a better say as compared to if it gets sold and someone else is controlling it. So we look forward to continuing to operate it."

Belber sees the upgraded arena as a centerpiece of downtown Albany’s revitalization.    "It's an economic driver. I think more downtown businesses have opened up as a result of the millions of people that we've brought into this facility, and now with the new Albany Capital Center attached, it really is helping us to get more NCAA events and a great thank-you to the state of New York and Governor Cuomo and the folks with OGS and so forth who have all helped to build that Albany Capital Center, and make it be part of what I think is becoming even a better market in downtown Albany."

Colonie Republican Frank Mauriello, who chairs the county Legislature’s civic center committee, tells the Times Union if the arena was losing money, lawmakers would consider alternatives like a sale, but he hasn’t seen any reports suggesting a loss.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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