Economic Engines: Syracuse’s controversial history with stadium decisions

Article by Jeremy Reynolds
Timeline by Lianna Hursh and Jeremy Reynolds

Twenty years ago, a debate raged in Syracuse over where to build a new home for the Syracuse Chiefs baseball team: on the site of the old stadium outside of the city proper or in the heart of the city as part of a larger effort to revive Syracuse’s downtown core. Ultimately, a small group of influential businessmen and politicians steered the project to the site outside of the city, a decision many in Syracuse forever think of as a mistake.

Sean Kirst, a journalist in the Central New York region for close to 30 years, called the NBT Bank Stadium decision “an utter debacle.”

“It made zero sense, and it was a blown opportunity for the city,” he said. “It’s still a five-legged table to this day.”

Now, a similar opportunity has presented itself. As questions concerning the future of the Carrier Dome come ever more sharply into focus, another discussion over the economic issues involved in either keeping the old site or relocating has many residents and local business owners concerned. At the other end of the spectrum, Kirst said there are plenty of people that object to its current location.

Robert Haley, co-director of the Urban Design Center of Syracuse and a LEED certified architect, said he doesn’t mind the current location, but he hopes to see the University master planners take the city master plan into consideration when deciding on the ultimate fate of the facility. Kirst agreed and stated that Syracuse has consistently made errors with major developmental decisions over the past few decades.

To date, University officials have not reached a decision regarding the Dome’s future. According to Kevin Quinn, senior vice president of public affairs at SU, the trustees talked about the issue during their November meeting and the board is aiming to reach a decision by the end of this school year.

Kirst said Syracuse has a history of missing economic opportunities, citing the Oncenter War Memorial Arena — a World War I memorial that was renovated instead of relocated in 1994 — as another mistake in Syracuse’s development.

More recently, New York State officials worked with the leaders of Onondaga County to build a new performing arts amphitheater, which opened its doors to the public on Sept. 3. According to Haley the deal was completed quickly and quietly, with Governor Andrew Cuomo providing $50 million to County Executive Joanie Mahony to build the theater.

The Lakeview Amphitheater, designed in record speed (roughly six months) by county engineers and CNS Engineering, represents another missed opportunity for the city, Haley said.

Haley, who has lived in Syracuse for more than 40 years, said the amphitheater’s construction happened as a direct result of negotiations concerning the relocation of the Dome in 2014.

“There was an actual effort by the State to get Syracuse University to work with a developer to build a new Dome that would not be on the hill,” Haley said.

The development firm, COR Development, explored several possible areas, settling on a location near East Genessee and Water streets. The plan they developed and proposed was kept quiet from the city, but when city officials learned of the plan, they created a review team to study the long-term economic impact of the proposal, according to Hayley, who was a member of the city’s review team in 2014.

The proposal featured a 44,000-seat, retractable-roof multiplex. Construction would have taken four years and cost $495 million from the state, county and private sector. Syracuse University would not have owned the new facility. According to the study, “transportation is of paramount importance. The future of I-81 viaduct and the potential role of mass transit in providing transportation solutions must be seriously considered.”

Kirst agreed that the amphitheater was born of “political reflux” — once the plans to relocate the Dome came to the city’s attention, city leaders demanded the report on COR Development’s proposal and effectively stalled the process. State and county executives decided to put the money, originally intended for the Dome to use, elsewhere.

“All of the sudden, out of the blue, the county and the state come in and say they want to build a new stadium,” Kirst said. “No city involvement, no community involvement, no public discussion — I didn’t mind the site, I didn’t like the way it was done. If they use public money there should be transparency.”

Haley, too, said the debate concerning the future of the Dome strongly resembled conversations about the NBT stadium. He explained that, from an ongoing, urban-planning perspective, the Dome could be used as an economic catalyst.

“People need to approach this with regard to long-term development, what makes economic sense for the city and the University,” Haley said. To study these issues, Haley said SU has hired two master planners: one for the campus and one for the stadium itself.

Sinéad Mac Namara, a structural engineering associate professor in SU’s Architecture department, said the proposal to build a new Dome away from the University last year “caused a storm of controversy among university officials and campus businesses.” She said that in light of recent events, the more likely scenario for the Dome’s future is to either replace the roof or build a new facility in the same location.

Quinn concurred, stating that the proposal to relocate the stadium “doesn’t have a lot of momentum at this point.”

Easily the most simple way to update the Dome would be to build a new roof using more durable materials on the existing shell, according to Mac Namara, who said a team of structural and geotechnical engineers would directly oversee that portion of the redesign.

As to the current Dome’s appearance, Haley said its status as an icon of the Syracuse skyline would be considered in any redesign efforts.

“As an architectural building, it’s not honorific, it’s not heroic, it’s not symbolic,” he said. “It’s a pretty straightforward building. And it’s strength is in that, that the Dome, the bubble, the scale of it and the color and location made it visible on the side of the hill, and the glow at night is like magic. If there’s an event, the glow inside the Dome — it’s translucent, of course — you see it, and everybody knows there’s an event. Officials don’t want to lose that visceral recognition.”

At that point, Haley said designing any sort of roof or new facility would take at least two years and any faster would jeopardize considering all aspects of the new or improved facility’s impact on the community, including parking, traffic, local business input and student access. He also said building a new roof or structure would likely take a minimum of two years.

Quinn said although the board of trustees intends to come to a decision soon, there is no official timetable, and University officials are considering every aspect of the community impact before announcing a plan. Haley said the future of the Dome — along with the future of I-81 — is one of the most pivotal decisions to be made regarding Syracuse’s economic future, and Kirst agreed.

“I would love to be able to look back on what happens with the stadium in 25 years and be able to say ‘Oh yeah. That made sense,’ ” Kirst said.