Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
The new president and CEO of the Javits Center – who began work yesterday – introduced himself to New York’s business community in dramatic fashion Thursday, at a forum exploring Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to tear Javits down and build a bigger convention center in Queens.
As the breakfast meeting was coming to a close, Alan Steel, who was seated at a table close to the stage, stood up.
"I am the incoming president of Javits. I started yesterday,” Steel said. “I'd like to ask the question: how long the panel thinks it will be before I'm out of a job?"
The moderator, Greg David, steered the question to one of his panelists, Bob Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, a think tank that favors replacing Javits.
Yaro told Steel, a native of Britain, "nothing happens in this town in less than three, four years."
Even the forum’s name seemed to suggest Steel’s time is limited: “After Javits” is the title Crain’s New York Business gave to the discussion it hosted at Essex House.
Steel has to try to make profit for Javits while working with a governor who has decided Javits is too small and too outdated to compete with other cities’ convention halls.
Steel told WNYC he was already in talks about taking the $275,000 a year job as CEO of Javits when Cuomo made his surprise recommendation on January 4, that the convention center be replaced. Under Cuomo's plan, a private developer, Genting, would build the nation's largest convention center at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.
"The governor's announcement was a new wrinkle that we didn't know about at the time," Steel said. "But my focus is on what we do now in whatever period is left and making sure that all of the businesses in this room today that get economic benefit from the Javits Center continue to do it for as long as the building is open."
Steel admitted the enormous glass structure on Manhattan's West Side has structural problems, but said his earlier experience as president of a trade show operator, George Little Management, showed him the building can compete with other cities' convention halls.
"I've been passionate about the building since 1986 when I first put a show on there I'm still passionate about it now," Steel said.
"When I hear people talk about it not being a success, I actually would like to say to them, 'Define for me what a success would be.' We're 70 percent in-use. We have a major economic impact. It is not an unsuccessful building and that's going to be one of my messages to the community at large."
Still, it was questions about the logic of Genting's proposal, rather than the future of Javits, that dominated discussion.
Genting wants the convention center to be part of a larger complex including hotels, restaurants and a casino. New York would have to legalize casino gaming to make that a reality.
Christian Goode, senior vice president for Genting Americas, said the company is prepared to build the convention center either way. But if gambling is made legal, Genting would ask the state for some kind of "exclusivity" in recognition of its huge capital investment to build the convention center.
"We're going to invest $3 billion in a facility that can't stand alone, as evidenced by the number of facilities across the US, whether it be Chicago, Orlando, they're all subsidized, they all break even or at a loss," Goode said. That statement seemed to acknowledge what some studies have shown: convention business has been declining for several years.
So does New York need another convention center? Goode said it does, and the space must be much bigger than Javits' 760,000 square feet.
"New York city is actually being forced to turn down potential events due to the lack of available space," Goode said. Genting's proposed hall would be 3.8 million square feet.