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BUSINESS: Region rich in business history
Times Union documents more than industrial nicknames and economy that morph into Tech Valley
By Alan Wechsler, business writer

Times Union promotional ad
Times Union promotional ad, circa 1944. (State Library)
The history of the Capital Region's businesses can be seen through the nicknames:

The Collar City (Troy), the Rug City (Amsterdam), the Spindle City (Cohoes), the Arsenal City (Watervliet), the Electric City (Schenectady) the Glove City (guess).

To chart the origin of these nicknames, it is necessary to understand how businesses came and flourished here. For that we need to go back to 1825 -- the start of the Erie Canal.

The canal brought commerce to the Great Lakes and beyond. Combine that with the wealth of hydropower -- the driving force behind the machinery of that era -- and it's easy to understand the attraction of this area.

By the time the Albany Morning Times, the precursor of the Times Union, rolled off the presses on April 21, 1856, the region was a hotbed of industry -- beer, furniture, shoes, oil, billiard balls, printing equipment, textile goods, lumber and ironworks.

The manufacturing brought the money, and the banks followed. At its peak, Albany had a dozen in its midst, including the First National Bank, the Albany Trust Co., the Home Savings Bank of Albany and the Permanent Savings and Loan Association of Albany.

The first edition of the four-page Morning Times in 1956 had plenty of business coverage on the front page.

Except it was all in the form of advertising.

The ads were listed as ''Business Cards'' -- little spot ads from companies like Albany and Boston (''cheap, cash boot and shoes''), Reid & Davies (''wholesale dealers in fine old brandies'') and Ira Porter's, which advertised ''splendid signs of beautiful designs.''

As the decades progressed, the Morning Times became the Times Union, and morphed from the easygoing, homey journal to the modern edition we know today. By the turn of the century, news had banished advertising from the front page.

Though at that time a separate Business section was a long way away, business news was still part of a newspaper's beat. Labor was also news -- the Aug. 12, 1905, paper held news from the Lagar Beer Brewers no. 15, the Iron Molders No. 2, the Journeymen horseshoers No. 55. There were the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees, the Photo Engravers, the Locomotive Firemen, the Pattern Makers, and the Retail Clerks, among many others. Albany may have been a political town, but it was also a union town.

Perhaps the biggest business news story of that era was also one of the region's biggest tragedies -- the collapse of the five-story John G. Myers Co. Department Store on North Pearl Street, on Aug. 8, 1905. The morning disaster, caused by a botched construction project, killed 13 people and injured another hundred.

The Times Union printed days of frenzied coverage -- tales of rescue and narrow escapes, flowery coverage of the funerals and stories of the arrest of the builder and architect (who were fined but faced no criminal penalty).

But two weeks later, when the store reopened in a new location, the announcement was made not by reporters but by the company, which took out a display ad. By then, the front page had moved on to more sensational news (''Begger Broke & Twisted Child's Leg''; ''Priest Robbed on a Sick Call''; ''Tells Police She Murdered Husband'').

The Depression was not a good time for many businesses, or their employees. But World War II brought prosperity and growth. When the war ended, workers around the country -- and in the region -- began to demand better working conditions. A massive front-page headline of April 1, 1946, tells of 400,000 mine workers around the country and transit workers in Detroit who went out on strike.

On Feb. 15 of that year, more than 750,000 steelworkers agreed to go back to work after a strike of nearly a month. That massive strike included 8,000 workers at the American Locomotive plant in Schenectady and 1,500 other local workers at such businesses as Republic Steel Corp. in Troy, Adirondack Steel Corp. in Watervliet, Albany Car Wheel Co. in Menands and Lovejoy Patent Specialty Co. in Hoosick Falls.

But as the era of manufacturing slowly ground to a halt, the Capital Region was seeing another change -- the push to suburbia. Albany residents were escaping the cities to buy property with lawns and garages. Thanks to cheaper cars and highways like the Northway and I-90, cities were becoming less relevant.

''In 1961 I got out of high school. It took me a half-hour to drive from Albany to Cohoes, it took me three hours to go up to Lake George,'' said Albany Assemblyman John McEneny, also a local historian. ''Today I can be in Lake George in 55 minutes, I can be in Cohoes in nine minutes.''

In Albany in the post-World War II age, the railroad yard shrunk and the West Albany shops closed up. In 1972, the F&M Schaefer Brewing Co. closed down its Albany brewing plant, putting 500 people out of work. With the rise of the malls, downtown businesses like Myers Co. (the same place that collapsed in 1905) closed up shop for good in 1970, the last downtown department store to do so.

The Times Union documented these losses, as evident from numerous pessimistic headlines from the late 1960s to early 1970s: ''‚'Deteriorating' Downtown Can't Wait, Merchants Say,'' ''One of Earth's Loneliest Places: Downtown Albany After 6 p.m.,'' ''Albany merchants' song ... anything but festive.''

Even the Times Union was not immune from the push to the suburbs, abandoning a downtown Albany building for its current Colonie location in 1970.

A year before that happened, the Times Union's afternoon competitor, the Knickerbocker News, covered another sad story, written by a young reporter named Fred LeBrun -- the last train to come to Union Station in downtown Albany. The cavernous downtown station on Broadway was being replaced by a sterile station of plastic chairs and florescent lights across the river in Rensselaer.

John G. Myers Co. Department Store
Thirteen people died in the fire at five-story John G. Myers Co. Department Store on North Pearl Street in 1905. (Albany Institute of History and Art)
Fortunately, this story ended happily. In 1983, Peter Kiernan, then-CEO of Norstar Bancorp, decided he would turn the station into the company's corporate headquarters.

''It was a fairly controversial thing,'' recalled Robert Sloan, then senior vice president the company, who helped oversee the project. ''People wondered why you'd spend all that money for offices. But there was an altruistic streak in Peter.''

Sloan, now 79, recalls having to step over two homeless people to enter the building the first time he saw it. It took three years and $18 million, with some help from the federal government, to double the floor space.

The project, which cost $8 million more than expected, helped bring downtown Albany back from the brink. Since then, Broadway has two new office buildings, North Pearl Street has a half-dozen bars and clubs and downtown -- at least during the workday -- is a flurry of activity.

Albany was not alone in having problems. Starting in the 1970s, Schenectady's biggest employer, General Electric, started moving to cheaper factories down south and in other countries and began to shrink its Schenectady plants. During World War II, the Schenectady plant employed 45,000 people. That number dwindled to 13,100 in 1974, and to 4,800 two decades after that.

The closure of the American Locomotive Co. in 1969, didn't help.

By 1986, jobs were leaving Schenectady at the rate of hundreds every month. ''The 80s was a tough, tough time for Schenectady,'' said former Mayor Albert Jurzcynski, now deputy secretary of business and licensing for the state Department of State. Jurczynski, who was mayor for eight years, did his part to bring Schenectady back from the brink by attracting a sizable Guyanese population from New York City.

The layoffs may have made the name ''Electric City'' passe, so new nicknames have been used in a more regional approach.

First was ''Capital District,'' a phrase said to be popularized in the 1920s through a joint effort between the then-Albany Chamber of Commerce and the Times Union. Monikers have come and, in some cases, gone since then -- Metroland, Tri-Cities and, most popular, Capital Region -- all of which were created to link the region's separate communities, through commerce, industry and the general feeling that we're all in this together.

Few of these names have been unleashed with the fanfare of today's most popular buzzword: ''Tech Valley.''

The phrase came from a January 1998 meeting of Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce members.

''The old phrase, 'Capital Region' or 'Capital District,' really plays on the fact that we're a government center,'' said Wally Altes, then chamber president. ''You really want to be more.''

Eight years later, it's hard to say if the ''if you name it, they will come'' technique of identifying this region will be a complete success. Some question whether Tech Valley lives up to its name. Not everyone in the tech world has heard of it -- notably, when Bill Gates was asked by a Times Union reporter in 2004 while visiting Cornell University what he thought of Tech Valley, he had no idea where it was.

Yet there have been successes, such as bringing Sematech and Tokyo Electron Ltd. to the University at Albany campus. And, last year, the Albany NanoTech initiative landed a $600 million, seven-year partnership between UAlbany and four of the world's biggest computer chip makers.

As the Times Union assured in a July 2005 editorial encouraging more state investment in the area, ''Tech Valley is real, and it is starting to pay off.''

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.