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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Breaking bread helps the Capital Region

Paul Bray's monthly column in the Times Union provides a history of the Albany Roundtable

First published: Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Albany Roundtable lunch forum is a civic ideal I guided as president for three decades. With Colleen Ryan, an outstanding Albany civic leader, as the new Roundtable president, I can think back about how it got started and about the couple of hundred luncheons and programs it has sponsored.

I vividly recall how the lunch forum idea developed. In the 1970s, a good time for Albany, I was on the board of the now-defunct Albany League of Arts, a civic organization supporting local arts. At one meeting, the wife of a banker said in a huffy way that her husband's work was too important for him to offer any of his time to a community activity the League was planning. What a shame someone, no matter how important he or she is, could not give a little time to support the community.

These days, I hear it called being in silos when units of business, government or community are isolated or not functioning well with each other. I saw the arts and business communities in Albany in their own separate silos. I didn't see the town square in Albany where community members could meet and exchange ideas.

These thoughts led to the notion of organizing a civic lunch forum where a cross-section of people from business, media, education, arts and neighborhoods, among other interested citizens in Albany, could have lunch together and listen to a community leader speak. The seed may have been planted in the 1950s, when I was president of the Key Club at Albany High School and was invited to attend Kiwanis Club luncheons.

Organizations like the Rotary Club and the various chambers of commerce offer a fair share of breakfast and luncheon programs. The Roundtable was intended to be different in the sense that it was public with a simple agenda of fostering an informed sense of community.

Enough local residents shared my enthusiasm to organize the nonprofit Albany Roundtable. Some stalwarts, like Realtor Mary Alice Leary and banker Mark Patten, have served from the beginning. The state Education Department offered use of the members room at the State Museum. We were ready to go.

Albany continues to be above all else a political city; City Hall casts a large shadow. Even though the emphasis was on the civic realm, I bowed to reality by inviting then-Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd to be the speaker at the first Albany Roundtable Luncheon in 1979. Corning enthusiastically accepted the civic lunch forum and he agreed to speak.

With Corning's appearance we started the practice of having the city's mayor give a state of the city talk each year, a practice that ended last year. During the few years before his death, Corning spoke each January and brought news of some new project that was going to happen. He also attended luncheons when he wasn't the speaker.

Initially about 35 people, who usually knew the speaker or came from the same sector as the speaker, attended. When the mayor spoke, attendance spiked to 50, representing a wide cross-section of interests. Here was another example of how Albany's mayor was involved in every aspect of city life.

The pattern changed when we moved to larger quarters at State University Plaza that could accommodate a hundred people. Today's audiences, ranging from 60 to a 100, are a mix coming from business, professional, government and nonprofit sectors. We also have a small, loyal contingent of retirees who want to stay in touch with what is happening in the city.

The Roundtable succeeded by keeping to the basics of its original purpose of offering a luncheon opportunity for community networking and to see, meet and hear leaders talk about their work.

Paul M. Bray is Founding President of the Albany Roundtable civic lunch forum. His e-mail is