SARATOGA SPRINGS – Extending the Greenbelt trail and combatting racism. Developing more affordable housing, diversifying the city’s economic portfolio and forging new collaborations with Nashville, Tennessee, and the Land of the Rising Sun are among the mayor’s goals for Saratoga Springs in 2017.
Approximately 250 city residents, business leaders, elected officials, and a handful of political hopefuls considering a future career in city government gathered on Monday night in the Sen. Joseph L. Bruno Meeting Room at the Saratoga Springs City Center, where Mayor Joanne Yepsen delivered the annual State of the City address.
“People are investing in Saratoga Springs and we cut 102 ribbons for new and expanded businesses in the city last year, a symbol of our stable and growing local economy,” said Yepsen, heralding 2016 accomplishments while pointing to a diversification of the city’s economic portfolio to continue to attract small businesses and future entrepreneurs. The mayor noted the appointment of Democrat Francine Vero as the first-ever woman city court judge in the city, while publicly thanking longtime Republican City Court Judge Jim Doern for his service – an appointment perceived as a slight among Doern supporters when announced last month.
Yepsen applauded the ongoing development of the Greenbelt Trail - a 23-mile multi-use trail that will connect city neighborhoods with the downtown district. The city was awarded $1.134 million in state funds – which it will match – as well as $932,000 in federal funding to complete the trail system that will run from the town of Milton border and adjoining an expanded Spa State Park trail system. She also advocated for promoting smart development that includes affordable workforce housing.
“Every day I hear that we are in danger of out-pricing ourselves, right out of our own city. We need to integrate more price points and housing options into our comprehensive development,” Yepsen said. An Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance specifying a percentage of all new development be targeted as “affordable housing” is currently on the table. “l do hope our City Council has the political will to make that ordinance law for the sake of thousands of residents and potential residents,” Yepsen said.
The mayor also noted a “distinctly disturbing problem” that “racism and intolerance may be on the rise here in our city,” according to a report issued by Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen. Yepsen cited anti-Semitic and racist messages discovered spray-painted on city streets and appearing on at least one local-targeted blog. Yepsen stressed the importance of education about the history of racist policies and the terrible impact it has on innocent people as one measure to combat hate speech, as well as announcing the creation of a Saratoga Springs Human Rights Commission to be charged with unifying positive efforts and providing education and advocacy resources. “We need to stay strong together, to treat each other with kindness and respect, to appreciate our differences, and to build a community where all people are important and treated equally,” Yepsen said. Five members will serve on the core founding group of the commission.
“We must always be inclusive and I think that’s something this community is known for; your acceptance of others in great diversity,” N.Y. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul remarked during her eight-minute introductory remarks.
It was a topic the mayor also addressed off-script from the stage. “Because of last weekend’s events in our nation, I want to just say something: Our constitutional rights are not Republican rights, they are not Democrat rights, they are the rights held by all Americans and we should honor them above all else,” Yepsen said. “The only rights that should matter to all of us are human rights, because how we treat our fellow human beings defines our community.”
In arts and cultural matters, Yepsen said she visited the Mayor and Arts Commission of Nashville, Tennessee, and is involved in discussions about a plan to establish an exchange program with the Music City. Nashville has a population of more than 600,000 and its legendary music venues include the Grand Ole Opry House, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Johnny Cash Museum. In October, The Metro Nashville Arts Commission announced its first funding of temporary public art and civic practice projects, following up on its strategic plan of “Crafting a Creative City,” which re-imagines public art as a tool for creative community investment, citizen engagement and neighborhood redevelopment. “Could Saratoga Springs be the New York State designated ‘City of the Arts?’ I think we can,” Yepsen said.
The Spa City which counts Chekhov, Russia as a “Sister City,” is also looking to expand its international partners. “I will be proposing, in the near future, new cultural development and sister cities so we can strengthen our relationships with other cultures and economies, and boost our international reputation and economic opportunities.” Yepsen said. “Japan has expressed some interest and that’s intriguing.”