DestinNY USA promises a shopping destination

Syracuse project wraps mountains, canal, movies all in one

August 04, 2002|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Something momentous is happening here, they say, something that will transform upstate New York like nothing since the glaciers, or at least the Erie Canal. It will do more than simply enrich the region, they say; it will change the very way that people think - about their environment, about themselves.

It is not a new religion. It is a mall.

But even "mall" does not do justice to this project, its promoters say, because it is so much more. It is DestiNY USA, a behemoth of a shopping, tourism and entertainment complex that will take up more square footage than two Empire State Buildings. It will be even bigger, they promise, than Minnesota's Mall of America - which is really, really big.

The plans call for 400 stores, 4,000 hotel rooms, and more than 30 cafes and restaurants, including many without plastic trays. But that's not all, the promoters say. A massive saltwater aquarium. Rock- and ice-climbing mountains five stories high. A 65-acre park under a Biosphere-like dome. A 20-screen movie complex, a 15,000-seat concert hall and not one but two Broadway-style theaters.

Oh, and a miniature Erie Canal, like the real one only a few miles away.

$2.2 billion project

That the financing for the $2.2 billion project still has to be secured does not bother its extremely wealthy developer, Robert J. Congel. He is so certain that his development firm will get the needed investment from Wall Street that groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for July.

Meanwhile, the plans for DestiNY USA continue to grow, mutating in size and expense like some space-eating organism made of glass and steel. In recent months, its estimated cost has risen about $400 million, as Congel keeps adding more flourishes, including a plan to make the entire project "green," or environmentally friendly. Even the poured concrete will be dyed green.

"It is time to give back," said Congel, who acknowledges that "cuddly" has not been among the terms applied to him as his company, Pyramid Management Group, has decorated the Northeast with malls and shopping centers. Hard-nosed, even ruthless, yes; warm and fuzzy, no.

But this native son's tough reputation may be why many here have come to share his bold assumption: that millions of people will flock to the cold belt of New York to visit a mall-that-is-not-a-mall, where a stop at the International Tourism/Exposition Center will move them to see the actual Erie Canal, the actual Adirondack Mountains and other actual upstate attractions.

Congel's charmingly relentless style, along with upstate's glaring need for economic jumper cables, has persuaded virtually every level of government to give him extensive tax breaks. All this even though a few central matters, like the names of the anchor stores, remain a mystery.

Mayor Matthew J. Driscoll jokes that he often begins his frequent conversations with Congel by asking, "What is it you're building, and when is it?" But like so many others here, the mayor remains an enthusiastic supporter of the project, in Syracuse's old Oil City section at the southern end of Onondaga Lake. After all, where else in upstate New York - or in the rest of the country - is anyone investing $2.2 billion?

More than Disneyland?

Figures developed by Economics Research Associates, a consulting firm hired by Congel, long ago became regional gospel. DestiNY USA will generate as much as $12.5 billion in annual economic activity, the firm estimated, and will create as many as 122,000 jobs with an average annual wage of about $31,000. The firm also predicts that the project will attract 35 million "visits" a year - more than San Francisco, New Orleans or even Disneyland.

Driscoll acknowledged that the numbers sounded incredible; comparisons between Syracuse and San Francisco have never before seemed necessary. But the city has double-checked the soundness of the consulting firm's projections, he said. "And if half of what they estimate comes true, it's a home run."

For Syracuse, a simple double would be nice. This city of 150,000 remains proud of its museums, colleges and ethnic neighborhoods, and a 20-minute car ride from downtown leads to dairy farms and lakes dotting a lush countryside. But it suffers the classic upstate urban plight: the department stores have fled from downtown, there is a projected $28 million deficit in the school and city budgets, and high-tech industries are not exactly clamoring for office space. Once known as the Salt City, it now calls itself "A City For All Seasons" to make the most of those long winters encased in snow.

Along came Congel, a resident of a Syracuse suburb who has an estimated worth of $700 million that, according to Forbes magazine, puts him in a tie for the country's 364th wealthiest person. His company says its shopping centers serve one of every four households in the Northeast.

Playing hardball

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