Facing federal campaign finance violation charges and a call from the city council to take a leave of absence, Cohoes Mayor Shawn Morse appeared before a packed community forum Thursday night to discuss the future of the non-profit Cohoes Community Center.
Mayor Morse stood at a podium in front of a packed Cohoes Senior Center, just across the street from the community center that abruptly shut down in October, leaving dozens of people without a job and many more without access to its recreational facilities and child care.
“I figured out the answer. If you all buy a membership we can open up tomorrow. There’s a heck of a crowd here,” said Morse.
Morse, a Democrat, called the forum even as he faces increasing pressure from public officials to resign. Just a week prior, he pleaded not guilty in federal court to a seven-count indictment for allegedly using campaign dollars for personal use. Just hours before the meeting, Morse’s former campaign treasurer and former Cohoes city councilor and Albany County legislator Ralph Signoracci pleaded guilty to wire fraud related to the case.
But the mayor did not address the allegations or Signoracci’s plea. A supporter asked Morse prior to the forum how he’s doing. The former longtime firefighter seemingly brushed off the legal and political scrutiny, saying he’s been in “a lot of heat.”
Moving on with the forum, the mayor invited Dr. David Mitola, board president for the Cohoes Community Center, to speak. With audience members demanding answers as to why the building was closed, Mitola pointed to financial mismanagement.
“And the reason it was abrupt is, unfortunately, the board was working with inaccurate financial reports. So we didn’t have a clear picture as to the real financial health and status of the Community Center.”
The Cohoes Community Center operates as a non-profit and is not owned by the city. The organization faces $375,000 in debt, and repairs to items like the roof and pool are looming. The doors are still open to private groups for rentals. But with $12,000 a month in overhead, funding is running out.
Mitola envisions the building re-opening to the public in a different capacity.
“A rec center would be swimming, the pool, membership, weight room, exercise room, gymnasium. Not childcare services,” said Mitola.
Since the center’s closure, volunteers have assisted with renting out the building. During Thursday’s meeting, teens were playing basketball in the Community Center gym.
As city residents raise money to keep the lights on, state Assemblyman John McDonald, a former Cohoes mayor, has secured at $500,000 grant to assist the community center.
But the issue is that the half-million must go toward a municipal entity. McDonald has been searching for potential partners that could come in and take on programming at the center, putting the state funding into motion.
“Listen, I’ve had a lot of conversations with the county and with BOCES. Are there programs where we can help introduce the building trades to these young men and young women? Because at the end of the day it’s great to play basketball and it’s great to be able to play floor hockey. But at some point you’re going to grow up and you gotta make a living,” said McDonald. “And we know that the Capital Region is very strong economically, we’re seeing a lot of growth. We need more people to work in the building trades.”
The Cohoes City School district was in talks to potentially purchase the building. But Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Spring said the district’s architects determined repairs would be too costly.
“We were looking at about a $6 million renovation project. That is just nothing I could ever, ever come to taxpayers for,” said Spring.
Morse was also against the city purchasing the building outright.
“We don’t want to go backwards by buying a building just to buy it out of our emotions and then have to raise your taxes to operate it. I’m not going to do that. Because I think that’s a bad, bad plan,” said Morse.
But the mayor did propose a plan. He discussed a proposal that would move the city library from its building on nearby Mohawk Street to the Cohoes Community Center. The historic structure also has some costly repairs on the horizon.
Morse said if the library combines with the community center, it could operate as a “learning and recreation” center, keeping amenities like the pool open. Morse says rooms that had been used for childcare could be rented out and used for programs by other agencies like the school district and Capital Region BOCES.
“We want to rent rooms out. So that we can have those BOCES-type programs. Right? Where we can teach shop again. How to be an electrician. How to be a plumber. We can have that right in our learning and recreation center. I’m going to raise money from who? Dr. Spring’s gonna pay me rent. So now I got rent, I got less money from the city that’s paying for a library, we have the community center operating with its memberships, and guess what? I think we just build a sustainable operation,” said Morse.
Morse, who has not yet floated the idea to the city council, postulates a combined center could also be supported by grant funding.
Barbara Hildreth, a Cohoes Library board member, was interested in the idea but said the library would need to take a “real, intensive look” at the available space.
“There’s all kinds of activities that happen in the library beyond the rental of books. And I think space is critical,” said Hildreth.
City council member Steve Napier, one of several Democratic mayoral candidates trying to keep Morse from a second term, was somewhat skeptical about combining the library and community center.
“You know, he said that by combining them we were going to be able to bring in thigs like shop and things like that from the school district, and yet Dr. Spring said in order to have any school district programming in the building it would take $6 million in renovation. It’s also not clear to me who the mayor intends to own the building,” said Napier.
Napier also acknowledged the pressure facing Morse.
“Whoever is in the mayor’s seat, I’m going to try to work with them as best I can to continue to serve the city. I think that it would make things easier moving forward if the mayor did take that leave,” said Napier.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Morse briefly greeted supporters but did not respond to the cadre of reporters and television cameras as he made for the exits.