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Developer: Aquarium would be better than convention center

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
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This overlay of downtown Albany shows a proposed entertainment district, including an aquarium and IMAX theater to be built just east of the Times Union Center.
This overlay of downtown Albany shows a proposed entertainment district, including an aquarium and IMAX theater to be built just east of the Times Union Center.

— For years, city and business officials have pushed for a convention center in downtown Albany, saying it would generate jobs and revitalize the area.

Now a local developer is proposing that an aquarium with an IMAX theater and science and technology center be built instead.

This week, Albany-based Omni Development Inc. unveiled a plan that would bring an aquarium to the site selected for the convention center.

I. David Swawite, president and CEO of Omni Development, said aquariums have revitalized cities throughout the country, and he hoped the Albany Convention Center Authority would buy into his plan.

“This is not about Omni,” Swawite said. “This is about the city, the state and the region. This is another incredible attraction that will bring people downtown. … It’s a very doable project.”

Omni’s plan got a chilly reception from the Albany Convention Center Authority.

Gavin Donohue, chairman of the ACCA, said that the aquarium plan is “nothing that’s being taken seriously.” He noted that the ACCA was created by the state Legislature with the purpose of building a convention center in downtown Albany and for the ACCA to sign onto the aquarium project would require a change in law.

Plans call for the $220 million convention center to be built on six acres along Broadway and Hudson Avenue, near the Greyhound station and Interstate 787. But the state has balked at providing the necessary funding, the project has stalled and the authority is now considering a smaller project, possibly in a different location.

“This is the No. 1 development site in downtown Albany,” Donohue said. “It is an incredible asset for the city and will be treated as such.”

Swawite said that the cost of the project would depend on the size of the aquarium, something that has yet to be determined. He compared the Capital Region to Chattanooga, Tenn., home of the Tennessee Aquarium, which opened in 1992 and cost about $45 million to build.

“The [Tennessee Aquarium] is a case study in how to rebuild your city,” Swawite said, noting that in 2010 the Chattanooga aquarium generated $19 million in revenue. Because the Capital Region, with about 872,000 residents, is bigger than Chattanooga, which has a population of about 535,000, it would likely generate even more revenue, he said.

Swawite said that there are a variety of ways to finance the building of an aquarium, but the project could be funded with a mix of public and private funding. “That’s definitely a possibility,” he said.

One person who expressed enthusiasm for Omni’s aquarium plan is Nancy Behrens, who recently launched a Facebook page, called Albany Aquarium, to generate enthusiasm for the idea of building an aquarium in downtown Albany.

“I think it would be awesome for the city,” Behrens said.

Behrens works as a part-time educator at the Children’s Museum of Science and Technology in Troy and said she believes it’s important to connect children with the Hudson River. She said she would like to see an aquarium that focuses on New York history and water-based species as well as the world beyond.

“The Hudson has a very diverse ecosystem,” she noted.

Behrens said she launched her Facebook page because she wanted to gauge the interest in bringing an aquarium to the Capital Region and she was overwhelmed by the response. “In less than two weeks, we had between 500 and 1,000 likes,” she said.

 
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