Mohawk Valley businessman Robert Esche said in a recent interview that his proposed Nexus Center -- a tournament-based sports and recreation hub next to the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium -- needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Esche is absolutely right. The Nexus Center must be a priority this year.

"I feel passionately about trying to get this done now as a opposed to a year or two from now," said Esche, Mohawk Valley Garden CEO and president of the Utica Comets. "I don't think the secret is going to last."

Local leaders, are you listening?

The Nexus Center is the key component of the proposed U District, first mentioned by Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente in his 2017 State of the County message. Two other components of that district - a casino and a craft beer museum - don't have similar luster. But the Nexus Center could be a winner.

We can't blow this because if we don't do it, somebody else will.

The center’s current design would include three ice rinks that can be converted into playing fields, making it a spectacular venue for hockey, soccer and lacrosse tournaments. The market, Esche believes, would be wide-ranging - even beyond New York state, going out of state to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Boston, and out of the country to Ottawa and Toronto.

Why would it work?

Because no one else does this.

Esche's vision is to create a Walt Disney world of sports tournament play for parents of kids playing in such tournaments as well as for people in the community who would just come to watch and enjoy the action. Anybody who's ever been to state sports tournaments, whether high school sectionals, American Legion competition or otherwise, knows the excitement they generate whether you have a kid playing or not. It's good solid entertainment.

The Nexus Center would be a major catalyst for economic growth as thousands of visitors come to town for weekend events, spending money on lodging, meals, fuel and other things. An impact analysis done projects it could generate over $26 million annually.

Such a facility, too, would meet a need for such venues as sports competitions continue to grow. Utica’s central location in the state would be a huge plus, making such a complex even more desirable. We've seen the impact when state Legion tournaments come to town.

Our city has the potential to make this happen. First, Esche has proven a most worthy entrepreneur with a steadfast commitment to his community. He's homegrown talent who made it to the top of his game as a goalie in the National Hockey League, and has brought his love for his sports and his community home. He brought an AHL hockey team here whose success goes without saying - the NHL's Vancouver Canucks just announced a six-year extension agreement with the Comets to continue as affiliates -  and turned the city's aging arena into a showplace, adding a terrific new sports-themed restaurant to the venue in the process. It's a place any city would be proud to call its own. 

Esche also did his homework and determined it a worthy move to bring an arena soccer team to Utica, relocating a team from Syracuse to the Aud. With a refugee population keenly interested in the sport, he figured it would be worth a try. So far, so good.

And so, the wheels are turning for this next project. One year ago, the Upper Mohawk Valley Memorial Auditorium Authority reached an agreement to acquire the Tartan Textile property, and the 1.9-acre parcel that makes up the entire block between Charles Street and Broadway east of the Aud has been cleared for the Nexus Center. While there's always some private investment in such projects, Esche is clear: state money will be needed to bring it to fruition.

That must be a goal for local leaders, including state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, and new Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, whose districts include the city of Utica. They need to be aggressive in seeking necessary funding because this is something not only good for Utica, but the entire region and state.

Let's get it done in 2019.