It’s sad really. An empty, once-great department store and an empty once-great office building competed for the college’s downtown campus. The Wall Street Journal reported the saga as emblematic of the struggles of Rust Belt cities.
Whatever one thinks of MCC’s move to Kodak, there are very serious questions about what this will cost taxpayers. MCC has only secured about half the money needed for the $72 million renovation. The county is buying 560,000 square feet, twice the space MCC needs. There’s no cost or timeline associated with building out the other half of the complex. This could very well cost taxpayers more than $100 million. Meanwhile, SUNY announced it needs hundreds of millions of dollars to stabilize its finances. And no one would be surprised if Kodak abandons the complex.
MCC has five years left on its lease at Sibley. If the Kodak move doesn’t come together, the county could end up owning a ton of excess space.
Sibley has been neglected for much of MCC’s 20 years in the building. But there are new people in charge. Main St. will be on the upswing when Windstream moves in and Midtown Tower gets under way. A new bus terminal is going right behind the building. Sibley’s owners have promised a state-of-the-art renovation for $18 million less than the Kodak price tag. MCC insists the Sibley building got a fair chance at keeping the campus, but the college trashed Sibley from the start.
Mayor Tom Richards pointed out MCC would be a good citizen if it had stayed put. City taxpayers spend a lot of money on MCC because the county charges residents based on where students live. Do public institutions have a responsibility to help revitalize downtowns? The Kodak move will not have much of an impact on High Falls; the campus will be inside a self-contained box. MCC’s future on Main St. would have had a much greater impact, as it would have remained in the heart of downtown.
The Democrats played their hand poorly. They had this thing won, but incomprehensibly gave up their power to withhold a supermajority when they agreed to non-location-specific bonding. One could also blame former mayor Bob Duffy for helping to kill Renaissance Square in 2009. Four years later, Main and Clinton still looks like crap, MCC is leaving, the bus terminal is going in anyway and the performing arts center project could move to the suburbs. Finally, Wilmorite shares blame for neglecting the property and not paying its $20 million tax and loan bill.
It’s possible 10 years from now, MCC students and staff may look wistfully at Main St. and wished they’d stayed. They might be all alone in a sea of parking lots and abandoned office space. There will have been countless headlines about cost overruns or expansions that never happened. Students will get off the bus at a shiny new terminal and instead of walking 20 steps to class, they’ll have to get on a shuttle. The Sibley Building will be filled with residents and new offices. There will be a restaurant or two on the first floor.
There are many scenarios that could play out. The best scenario is the project is fully-funded and stays within budget while Sibley is able to find another use for the department store portion of the building. The worst scenario is MCC moves in and can’t finish the build-out, Kodak moves out and Sibley remains vacant. I bet a combination of the above happens, which means this move won’t be a win-win for anyone.