FBA Interviews Albany Mayor Gerald D. Jennings

By Ray Feliciano

Q: How do empire zones work to entice new business growth?

“The empire zone program was basically set up for urban revitalization. It’s easy to build a building, and you can do it a lot less expensively here. Incentives include benefits in the zone, tax abatements, and employee benefits. Used correctly, it’s a very useful tool. It’s helped us tremendously.”

Q: Where does the convention center fit into all of this?

>“We had a very, very strong study that said this is one of the best markets for a successful convention center/hotel. We had the best people in here to assess what is going on, and it’s a transformational project. I look at it as an opportunity for us to not only transform the city, but to create several hundred permanent jobs. We talk about people who are on welfare who want to go to work. This is an ideal situation. Train them. Let them work in the hotel, in the convention center. Transition these people into work. There will be about 1,400 construction jobs, but it will also change the attitude about coming here. For example, the NCAA basketball regionals won’t come here because we can’t accommodate them. They want a place that will accommodate the teams and the media. When you take a project of this magnitude, it has a great benefit because it helps all the other hotels, people come here and spend money, and it’s exposure for the city. It’s the Capitol of New York State. It’s long, long overdue.”

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Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings

Q: What about creating more nursing facilities that are a hybrid between nursing homes and living assistance?

“Transitional housing. I could talk about that for years. The thing is, should county government be in that business? Groups do it, and they do it effectively, and yet the county is always complaining about lack of revenues. Maybe it’s time to pass a lot of that off [from the county to the private sector], because the demand is here and people are going to make money.”

Q: What about expanding the Eden Park nursing home?

“Yes, there’s a site behind it that you can do an addition on. That place itself was a nursing home, and you can modernize it. There are two sites, the other over on Henry Johnson, ‘Blair’. They are up for grabs, too [right within the city]. They have a few hundred beds there. When it takes an hour to get to work, people are more likely to say forget it. You’re more likely to want to go when it’s only 10-15 minutes. But it’s about training, too. I don’t want what happened in Austin, Texas to happen here. When they grew and had their implosion because of all the technologies, they displaced families. They displaced people from the city. They created their own suburbs, basically, other counties, because they didn’t plan appropriately to keep people in the mix, making sure they have jobs. We have to be smart.”

Q: After the dot.com crash, Dallas suburbs receded. How can we avoid that happening here in the future?

“That’s why you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Seriously, you don’t just look at, for example, nanotechnology. There’s different ways to do this, and the Harriman campus will be very critical for us when we develop that.”

Q: What’s the basic strategy for address the parking issue?

“First of all, you have to have a regional approach. When you look at the Northway in the morning, 93% of the cars have one person in them. There’s a mindset around here that you should be able to park outside of where you work and not pay for it. It’s a suburban attitude that’s brought into the city when people come in here to work. It’s unfair to city residents. We should be able to manage our streets. It shouldn’t be up the men and women who sit over [in the LOB]. Let us plan our streets. Since I came in we more than doubled the state inventory of parking facilities. There’s at least 5,000 more spots than they had.”

Q: When’s that Hawk-Sheridan parking garage coming?

“That should start pretty quickly because it has to be done at the same time that they transition people down at the campus into the Alfred E. Smith building. So that’s another example of an attitude, a mindset here. The people who live in Center Square, Sheridan Hollow, Mansion, and the other neighborhoods deserve a break. They pay taxes here, they live here, and we should be able to manage our streets. The problem when you have a bill that says we’re going to do it in this type of area, is that you displace the problem to adjacent neighborhoods. I saw it when I was on the Council. When I was on the Council, I sued the mayor and the Council over permit parking in 1984. I hired an attorney and argued that you cannot restrict parking in Washington Park just for residents. It displaced the cars to where we were. I say use it as a planning tool. Don’t abuse it, but use it. We should be looking at light rail. It would be much more favorable environmentally. People will use it.”

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Mayor Jennings takes the time to answer questions
for TIC from FBA members Ray and Kimberly Feliciano.
(Photo by Kristin Smith)

Q: I’ve notice there’s been a lot of investment in the Palace Theatre recently. Why don’t they have a nice big sign?

“It’s getting a new $2 million marquis! Wait until you see this thing. It’s going to be awesome! They are working on it now. It’s going to be a modern replica of the old Palace Theatre’s original marquis. It should be done by end of April. That theatre is gorgeous inside. You can now see beautiful gold, and murals that had been painted over. All the seats have been done over, the most comfortable seats anywhere.”

Q: What is Albany doing to improve education?

“My biggest problem in this city? Schools. Education. Bingo. Biggest problem. I could bring in billions of dollars of new business, but if our schools don’t pick it up, and I’m a strong proponent of public schools. 90% of our kids in 8th grade are not reading at the state level. 90% is a sin. I’m on the Governor’s Education Task Force, and I’ve been very vociferous in what should be on it. It’s not just about money, it’s about creating jobs. I said, ‘Look, this system worked 25 years ago. It’s not working now. We have kids who are having kids. We have kids who are not getting pre-k, that are playing catch-up. They go in behind and their self-esteem is down. Take the money and put it on the front. Mandate pre-k, especially in urban areas. That’s where you spend your money intelligently. I see kids around here that are bright, who are not cultivated, that we lose. By the time they’re in 8th, 9th, 10th grade, forget it.”

Q: Regarding ‘No Child Left Behind’, what can we do to preserve programs and address the un-funded mandate?

“When you talk about un-funded mandates, you can take the school district budget here that’s got $140 million. There’s gotta be better cooperation between government and school districts. It doesn’t make sense to have my plows to go by their parking lots at night and do them, and save them money that could go into the classroom. We need better alternative education. We need more teacher time with kids, not disciplining them, but teaching them. My feeling is that we’re testing our kids too much. There’s this focus on testing. We also need to lengthen both the school year and school day. If juvenile crime occurs between 3:30 and 7:30 at night, what are we kicking the kids out for? Keep them in a place where they feel safe. Most parents don’t quit their jobs at 3:30. These kids end up in trouble, out on the street. This is why I’m a strong proponent of after school programs. I’m starting a program here in about three weeks. It’s called the Mayor’s Truancy Program. Our kids need to understand that the most important thing they should be doing is getting an education. I want a day truancy center established. So we are fine-tuning it now. I’ve got the county, social services, child protection, family court, juvenile police, school district. We’re going to have one central location. Any kid on the street between the ages of 5 and 17, we are picking them up. I’ll pick them up myself, and I’ve told them that. We’ll take them to this place and process them. That way you identify kids who are at risk, and we can communicate with the school district (or courts). We can identify parents who have written these kids off. Give them a boost. There’s enough ways to do it. We spend a lot of money doing other things. There’s nothing that bothers me more than seeing kids on the street during the day.”

Q: What about civic centers, community centers?

“I don’t want kids just in the gym or in the swimming pool. I want a place where they can learn. That’s how we fashion it. I also want to hire and fire whoever works there because I know those in the district who get it and who kids respect. I even said that we mandate that these schools stay open until 7pm. I don’t have a problem with budgeting something for kids, especially programs. Work with the municipalities. I got a beautiful community center in Arbor Hill. I want to build one in the south end.”

Q: What about Vouchers and Charter Schools?

“Vouchers and charter schools exist because public schools have done a terrible job. What they did over here was a disservice to everyone when they passed the charter school law. What they should have done was phase out the money that public schools have to give to these charter schools. Instead, they lost $8,000 per kid, and you’re talking $4 million that’s out of the budget.”

Q: Can we make the budget more accessible to the public?

“Here, you want it? (throws us the budget book) That explains it all to you, with pie charts and all that good stuff. That’s public information. It’s available. The library probably has it.” (we’re still sifting through it)

Q: Last year at LarkFest, an anti-abortion group, the Citizens Concerned For Human Life demonstrated and were told to put their signs away. What was the reason behind that?

“I’m being sued for that so I can’t get into detail. I saw a potential problem there because people in the crowd were yelling at them, and they were standing right next to the kids’ zone. Have you seen the pictures? LarkFest is a family festival. We allow the protesting all the time over there. Our police protect them. I basically asked them to cool it for a day. I didn’t want an incident, someone going after them. I saw an impending problem there. I’m the mayor, and I don’t walk away from problems.”

Q: What does being a Democrat mean to you and how important is that?

“People get hung up on the moniker, ya know. I’m the CEO of this city, the business of the city of Albany. My job is to establish a relationship with the people here. If I feel that they are going to work with me, I’m not walking away from them. I have a good relationship with Governor Pataki. He’s a friend of mine. I can call him anytime. He’s agreed to make this the best capitol city in the country, and he’s worked with me. The stuff going on here isn’t by luck. It’s not because it’s Assembly-driven. It’s because I came up with plans for Albany that should have been done a long time ago. Yeah, it’s weighing very heavily on me. I’m in a city with 11 to 1, Democrats to Republicans, and they tell me, ‘Mayor, they’re going to throw your butt out.’ I say, ‘You know what? I’m going to do what’s best for the city.’ Ya know, Carl McCall is a friend of mine, and he never asked me for an endorsement. So I did what I had to do. I’ll live with that. You make tough decisions in this game. Bill Clinton was a friend of mine. I campaigned for him in ’92. I’ll work with John Kerry. It’s time for a change, no doubt about that, but I’m not walking away. Joe Bruno is a local guy. For years and years people didn’t know this part of the state existed because of the leadership over here. We’re lucky we have Bruno. He represents this region very well, which did not happen before. If I can’t call up Joe Bruno without people getting upset for me talking with him as well as Goerge Pataki, I say, ‘Tough.’ That’s my attitude. You don’t burn ‘em (the bridges). There are issues that our representatives should be standing next to me, out in front, on to get done. It’s very important to me to look people in the eye to see whether they are telling me the truth or not. That’s my vice principle training (laugh).”

Q: Are there plans to revitalize Arbor Hill?

“Yes, there’s an Arbor Hill Task Force, a revitalization plan for the south end. We have proposals, which are coming from the people. It takes money. I see this as an opportunity. People are now investing in the city like they never did before. They see it as a beautiful home, and property values are going up dramatically. In my first term, I did the first revaluation this city had in 50 years. They said I was never going to get re-elected. I said it’s not fair to have two identical houses, one assessed at $35,000 and the other at $75,000. Every five years we’ll update it. Our property values went up by half a billion dollars in five years”

Q: What about preserving historical sites like Ten Broeck Mansion?

“You can look at that property and see how beautiful it is. It’s about responsible land owners and property owners. What we’ve done is try to get their attention in many ways. Yet we have old buildings, some that should be demolished, some that we can’t. Cost is a factor in getting them down. We inventory and have kids from SUNY to do a lot of the urban information gathering. There are things in the works here that should come off, but it’s going to take everyone being on the table. We can’t walk in two different directions.”

Q: Does Albany have a gang problem?

“No, I really don’t see it. I was concerned maybe five or six years ago. I have a gang prevention program, one of the best in the state. Our guy, Barrett, goes all over. He’s built up so much trust with these kids. We do have kids who are affiliated with gangs, yes, but do we have the real serious, organized, gang-bangers? I don’t believe so. We have kids that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing, but a lot of them are displaced. We’ve had a lot of influx from NYC. They come here, they sell drugs. It’s not as serious as it is in some of the other areas like Rochester. We try to stay very attentive.”

Q: How about murders in Albany?

“We had nine murders here last year, and five of them were domestic violence. I can’t prevent those. I argue with the media about this. If it bleeds, it leads. That’s one of the problems. You don’t see our kids getting accolades when they’re on the front page or accomplishing something at Albany High. You guys play a critical role in this stuff. That’s why I’m saying to get the right message out. There are 19 news stations, and if someone shoots somebody it’s on 9 stations 27 times. I’m not saying we don’t have murders, but we work with the task force on guns, violence, and the whole nine yards. If you look at this city compared to others of its size, there are serious problems in some urban areas. I ride around all the time. I see what’s going on. I get involved. I shouldn’t do some of the things I do, but as long as I’m the mayor I’m going to do what I can do to help. I’m great at telling kids to get to school, for example. It’s my job.”

Q: Do you think not allowing people to come to your office without an appointment limits your availability?

“I’ve had my share of people who want to get too close to me. You gotta be cautious. My people tell me I’m too approachable.”

Q: With the trend of mayors marrying gay couple around the country, what is your stance on gay marriage?

“If it’s the state law we have to endorse it, of course. I don’t do marriages. I got enough judges for that. I think it’s misleading to do it now. You’re giving people a false okay. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t play with it.”

Q: What is your position on Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment in reaction to gay marriage?

“Bush is terr… That thing? He’s trying to obfuscate the other issues that are going on the country.”

Q: How can we address absentee landlords?

The Mayor said that utilizing surrounding services (police, fire dept, any public service) to report conditions they see to whomever handles the investigation of those type of violations.

Q: What do you think of electronic voting?

“While we should use whatever means we have to make it available for people to vote, electronic voting machines can be unreliable. There might be some new ones that may create less problems than what happened in Florida.”

Q: Where do you see our city 5 to 10 years from now?

“I think it’s going to be one of the hottest growth areas. When I talk about Albany, I don’t just talk about the city--I talk about the region. You’re going to see this really take off, and we have to plan very, very carefully. We have to get rid of the parochialism that we’ve had for years, and we have to start looking at the issues we talked about before-infrastructure, water... I spilled 200 days of water over our reservoir this year because we had so much. Does that make sense? Some areas don’t have water. Albany water is terrific. We have great water. We have a commodity that a lot of people, a lot of municipalities, would love to have. So, it’s time for us to start looking at how do we take our water, which we have in excess, and share with other communities. We do sell to Bethlehem and to Guilderland. But you get this technology and these chip fab plants (referring to the growth of Albany), and there is a big demand for water. So, we have to get smart when it comes to infrastructure, and as I had mentioned before, light rail and transportation. That’s very important.”

“If you engage these companies correctly, they can help in your schools, help keep your college students here with jobs, and help generate tax revenues to make sure services are continued. It’s gonna be a trick, but the chambers are working together like they never have before. We have 14 chambers that are working with each other. So, it’s a good time for us.”