SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Council held a lengthy and at-times heated discussion Tuesday night about whether to fund a Special Election in May or June as requested by the Charter Review Commission, to potentially change the way the city is governed.
Since its inception as a city in 1915, Saratoga Springs has operated under a Commission form of Government – that is, with four commissioners and one mayor each running separate departments and all having equal say. Mandated to review the City Charter every 10 years, the Charter Review Commission, a 15-person group appointed by members of the City Council, recommended bringing to voters a proposal that the city adopt a Council-Manager form of governing. Under such a plan, the council would be charged with hiring a professional city manager to carry out policies.
A measure to fund the Commission’s $46,000 administrative budget – which includes fees for legal consulting, sending informational mailers to residents and a clerk to transcribe meeting minutes – received unanimous council approval, but a $37,000 request to fund a Special Election in May or June was rejected by a 3-2 vote.
City Mayor Joanne Yepsen, who voted to support funding the Special Election, said if the Charter Commission desired to hold a vote in May, then it was their right to do so. “I think we’ve got to let the voters decide. I don’t think it’s up to us - when it should be, or what they should put on the referendum,” Yepsen said. “I think it’s in our best interests to move this forward regardless of what we all think personally.”
Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who vehemently opposed funding a Special Election, argued that the council’s actions are not politically motivated whereas the Charter Commission’s are, and received like-minded commentary from Accounts Commissioner John Franck. “To say this group has not advocated for a change in the form of government is blinking at reality,” Franck said. “They’ve been disparaging the current form of government, but telling about this new form of government. They’re not supposed to be doing this. They’re supposed to be educating.”
Franck, Madigan, and DPW Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco rejected the funding request, and each stated the public would be better served – both in cost savings and by a larger voter turnout - should the referendum be held in November.
“I think it disenfranchises people. This is voter suppression, I don’t care what anybody says,“ said Scirocco.
Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen, like Mayor Yepsen, voted in favor of funding the Special Election. He argued that the issue requires its own attention rather than it being added to this November’s Election Day slate, which will include all five council member seats up for vote.
“I think this is such an important issue and a vital part of looking at where our city is going that it needs to be decided upon separately, and in an environment not muddled by the political intrigue that often comes with our November elections and all the special interests that rise up,” Mathiesen said. Following the vote, Yepsen attempted to provide information about the ramifications of the council’s vote and what the next steps might be regarding the Charter Commission’s potential actions, but was not permitted to do so by other members of the council.
“This will come down to a lawsuit, I suspect, and the courts will decide what they’re going to do with this,” Franck said. “There may even be a lawsuit at the City Council level.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Galleries, museums and classic architecture. A cinema. Public parks. Taverns, restaurants and cafes. Together they are the elements that contribute to community vibrancy.
But, for the past half-century, one noticeably missing piece in this walkable city has been the lack of a year-round, mid-sized venue – an unfulfilled need since Saratoga’s 5,000-seat Convention Hall was destroyed by fire in 1966.
With an extensive renovation of Universal Preservation Hall set to get underway, that cultural vacancy is set to soon be filled. “This will be an acoustically perfect theater-in-the-round and will hold about 750 people,” said Teddy Foster, campaign director at UPH. “There will be a lot of music, Broadway cabaret and live theater.”
The current schedule of events will conclude in five weeks and a $5.5 million renovation of the historic building is slated to get underway in June. When UPH re-opens in the fall of 2018, it will house new heating and air conditioning systems, a kitchen, an elevator and new light and sound fixtures with acoustic treatments.
“It will have everything,” Foster said. The main room’s flexibility will allow for the relocation of seats as events dictate and a community room located on the building’s lower level will hold another 140 people. New entry doors will be set on the building’s Broadway facing-side to provide theater-goers close proximity to a 450-vehicle public parking garage on Woodlawn Avenue.
The Victorian Gothic structure on Washington Street was built in 1871 and served as a Methodist church and a gathering place. Teddy Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass and William Howard Taft to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg have each taken a turn atop the main stage during the building’s 146-year history. A century after its construction, the building began to fall into disrepair and the church sat empty for several years. In 2000, the city condemned the building and members of the community rallied to save the structure from demolition.
Today, the nonprofit group UPH owns the building and maintains a 21-person board of directors. A local Baptist congregation – which continues to host weekend services at the hall - owns the land on which the church sits. An initial wave of renovation work began in 2003 after $3 million was raised. The current Capital Campaign - The Road To Opening Night – is ongoing and has secured about 90 percent of the $5.6 million it seeks to raise, Foster says. A fundraiser will be held in May at Saratoga National.
In 2015, UPH got an added boost when it became an affiliate of Proctors. The Schenectady based organization will lend their expertise in securing programming and coordinating ticket sales and marketing, in addition to other areas. Proctors was built in 1926 in downtown Schenectady and was one of a dozen vaudeville houses along the east coast of the country. A half-century later, it was among the last standing theaters of a deserted downtown landscape. Like UPH, it also was saved from the wrecking ball.
Last week Proctors’ creative director, Richard Lovrich, and its publicist, Michael Eck, staged a slide show presentation and discussion at UPH based on the release of their new coffee-table book, “Encore: Proctors at 90,” which depicts everything from the backstage application of character makeup for a production of “The Lion King,” to images capturing gracious remembrances of a theater visit by Sophia Loren. It is a narrative of renewal and rebirth, and a tale of a city and a theater taking turns saving each other, the authors say.
After undergoing a transformative restoration of its own, the historic theater today features everything from ZZ Top, this weekend, to the staging of “Hamilton,” during its 2018-19 season. Of UPH, Proctors CEO Phillip Morris says he envisions a welcoming place to gather and a cultural heart of the city.
After the Saratoga Springs venue reopens with its 45-foot-tall ceilings, bell tower and walnut and ash staircases that feed into the main hall, it is anticipated it will stage 200 or so annual events. “I like to say I imagine the hall as Saratoga’s living room,” Foster said.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was born of a community’s compassion on Christmas Eve in 2013, in the aftermath of tragedy that claimed as victim one of its own. On Valentine’s Day it received a gift of permanence that promises to help provide a successful continuum of care for its survivors.
Local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa, announced Tuesday they will pay for the costs of a new Code Blue homeless shelter to be built on the current Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street. Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue program, and siting an emergency shelter at a permanent location has been a high priority following a series of temporary shelter venues that have been staged at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the Salvation Army building and the Soul Saving Station Church.
“This phenomenal gift solves the consistent challenge we have faced over the last few years of providing a permanent home for Code Blue,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of S.O.S. Initial plans call for a two-story building with a large kitchen, laundry room, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large storage area for donated food and clothing, and a small Code Blue office. Local firms Bonacio Construction and the LA Group will be involved in the development of the building and both have agreed to forego any profits to keep the costs as low as possible. Design plans will be evaluated by the city’s Land Use boards. Finocchi said ideally, the new building will consist of 6,500 square feet of space and house about 50 beds. The hope is that the new building will be operational by Nov. 1.
Need for Shelter is Great
The average number of overnight guests this season – 41 per night – is an all-time high, as is the number of openings – 89 nights as of Valentine’s Day – already surpassing all previous season totals, with presumably more to come til warmer climes prevail. The shelter initially opened when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order which directed emergency shelters to operate when temperatures dropped below 32 degrees.
The need for a city emergency shelter during the winter months is great. Between 2007 and 2015, although homelessness nationwide decreased by 11 percent, it increased in New York, rising by 41 percent, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 - the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.
The Code Blue Saratoga program was born from the tragic death of Nancy Pitts. The 54-year-old mother of two sought shelter on a Williams Street porch during a frigid December night in 2013. She was discovered by police the next morning. Within days of the homeless woman’s death, a cooperative partnership between then mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, non-profit organizations, and members of the community was initiated and a plan set in motion to site an emergency shelter in the city.
“The proposed plan gives Code Blue a permanent home, as opposed to its current revolving status, which will be critical to ending homelessness in Saratoga Springs,” said Yepsen, who also publicly thanked Ed and Lisa Mitzen “for making our long-term goal a reality.”
Ed Mitzen, owner of the marketing agency Fingerpaint Marketing, grew his local health care ad agency Palio Communications from a five-person shop to a multimillion-dollar company with nearly 200 employees. In 2006, he sold the company and two years later founded Fingerpaint Marketing, eventually setting up shop on Broadway in a building formerly occupied by Borders Books and Music. In an interview with this reporter in 2015, Mitzen said philanthropy is a core value. “We’re blessed and fortunate to have good jobs and good careers and we feel a tremendous sense of pride to be able to give back to the community,” Mitzen said. “We’re always looking for ways we can help other people.” The donation includes costs for the building and amenities, such as appliances, although operating costs will come from other means. S.O.S. currently operates two other buildings on its property as well as a twice-a-week “drop-in” center which draws 20 to 22 people each day. Finocchi said having the Code Blue shelter on the same grounds will be beneficial. “Having Code Blue in close proximity to the case-managed shelters maximizes the opportunity for Shelters of Saratoga to provide the full continuum of homeless services to the individuals we serve,” Finocchi said. “This project will allow us to more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need, including case management, mental health counseling, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Our ultimate goal is to get them stable and housed.” Over the past four years, 36 individuals who have used Code Blue services have successfully transitioned into the Shelters of Saratoga case managed shelter.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In a city known for its horses, it is still a sight to behold: standing about five-and-a-half feet tall, weighing 1,800 pounds and steadied atop four sturdy legs, they represent the city’s most unique police officers.
The Saratoga Springs Police Department initiated the use of a mounted patrol in 2000, following in a long tradition first documented when London’s Bow Street Police established its horse-mounted branch more than 250 years ago. This week, Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen announced one of the longest serving members of Saratoga Springs’ mounted division will be, well, stepping down.
“Jupiter is 23 years old and ready for retirement,” Mathiesen explained. The standard-bred gelding, originally named Jo Jo Geronimo, was donated to the police department in 2003, and has patrolled the city for more than a decade.
Jupiter became the city’s third equine officer, following the initial experiment in 2000 of a horse on loan from the state Park Police, and a 17-hand standard-bred gelding named Of Course I Can - later renamed Zeus- who served the department for three years, until his death as the result of West Nile virus. More recently, Jupiter was joined on the equine staff by the 1,800-pound black Percheron named King Tut. A healthy Standardbred horse will usually live to the age of about 25, and Jupiter’s golden years will be spent in the familiar surroundings of a farm just off Route 29 where the police horses are boarded.
“We have somebody who is going to care for him,” said Assistant City Police Chief John Catone. “He’ll retire and be able to play on the farm with all of his friends.”
Serendipitously, horse owner Charles “Chuck” Harrison on Jan. 30 penned a letter to the city police department, offering to donate his 11-year-old Standardbred, named Most Fun Yet, to the mounted division of the department. “I claimed him back in 2011 and he’s always been a pleasure to be around. I wanted to find a real good home for him,” Harrison said. “He’s a special horse. His personality makes him special and he’s as easygoing as they come. In the barn, we call him ‘Fat Boy,” Harrison laughed. “Now we call him ‘Officer Fat Boy.’
Most Fun Yet had been a frequent competitor at Saratoga Casino Hotel. He was foaled on Feb. 25, 2006 in Thornville, Ohio and sired by Full of Fun. The bay gelding had 223 starts overall - finishing in the money 87 times, winning 19 races outright and earning more than $190,000. “He actually raced until the end of the meet here in December,” said Most Fun Yet trainer Scott Mongeon. “He’s still viable as a race horse and could still race, but he is getting up there in age. Chuck thought it would be better off finding him a home, as long as it’s the right home.“
Most Fun Yet is being readied for training. The process is expected to take four to five weeks and if all goes well, he could be ready to serve by early May. The equine officers are employed in Saratoga Springs year-round and are a visual magnet for area children and out-of-town visitors alike. They patrol the racecourse in the summer, attend special citywide events, and bear witness to the occasional mayhem that can ensue downtown. “During fight calls, if there is a fight between two people, I can put a horse between them and that’s it - the fight’s over,” SSPD mounted patrol officer Glenn Barrett said in 2015.
“Most Fun Yet will be trained and become one of our police horses, and Most Fun Yet will probably have a lot of fun at four o’clock in the morning on Caroline Street,” Commissioner Mathiesen said with a laugh. The city’s newest equine officer, its fifth overall, is expected to undergo a name change prior to being put into service and plans are underway to host a contest among area schoolchildren to rename the horse.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Four months into her new job, SPAC President Elizabeth Sobol says she is learning the Saratoga Performing Arts Center has a uniqueness all its own.
One factor is the location of the venue - nestled among 2,200 acres in the state park sitting on the cusp of a culturally vibrant city, she says. Another is the relationship forged with other performing arts organizations during the venue’s 50-year existence which continue to deliver everything from the whirring pirouette of the ballet dancer, to the delicate air strike of the conductor’s baton and the amplified clamor of an electric guitar.
“Having traveled all over the world, all over the United States, all over North America and having seen festivals of all kinds, I’m here to tell you there is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Sobol, a classically trained pianist. She relocated to Saratoga Springs from Miami Beach last fall and will mark her first season at SPAC this year.
“Thinking about the programming, I listened to community voices about what they wanted to see this summer.”
The spectrum of responses offered an array of varied opinions. “Part of my job has been listening to those voices and creating something cohesive that would speak to different aesthetic desires and visions,” Sobol says.
This year, the New York City Ballet will stage 18 ballets by six different choreographers during their residency, from July 5 to 15. The Philadelphia Orchestra season, from Aug. 2 to Aug. 19, will feature a balance between the new and the traditional and include one piece not performed at SPAC since the 1960s. And the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will return to the Spa Little Theater with six concerts, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 22. The schedule of performers and performance pieces will be publicly released Sunday.
“One thing I wanted to do was also create mini-festivals within a festival. It immerses you in a sound, a narrative and a concept. In dialogue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, we created a mini-Russian festival, a mini-American festival and a mini-French festival. So, if you look across all our programming – the New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society and the Philadelphia Orchestra - you’ll see some of the same themes arising.”
Sobol also noted a new series titled “SPAC on Stage” to target young, musical genre-crossing fans and featuring several hundred audience members seated onstage. “What we’re envisioning is an experience that is intimate and extremely visceral and will feature artists unique and different than anything else that has appeared on the SPAC stage."
With pop concert promoter Live Nation, Sobol says there is an ongoing dialogue to maintain the delicate balancing act of scheduling dates at the venue between the pop and classical worlds. A variety of pop concerts have already been announced: Dave Matthews (two solo shows in June, sans band), Train, Nickelback, Dead & Company, and classic rock bills such as Foreigner/Cheap Trick, Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, and Chicago/Doobie Brothers, among them. Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will be staged June 24-25 and will feature headliners Chaka Khan and the Gipsy Kings, returning artists Jean-Luc Ponty, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, a musical tribute to Ray Charles and more than one dozen other artists.
Responding to recent reports that President Donald Trump may severely cut or altogether eliminate cultural programs that receive federal funding such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Sobol says while concerned about potential cuts to NEA funding for the national well-being, it’s not something that will greatly affect SPAC. “We are being much more strategic about arts funding, but it’s not something that, if it goes away, it’s going to put us in a compromising position.”
*Note, an initial version of this story misstated the number of acres in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The correct number of acres is 2,200.
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.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A week-long effort by Shelters of Saratoga is currently underway to create a real-time, by-name registry of the homeless population in Saratoga Springs.
The data gathered from surveys, which are voluntary, will provide the community knowledge of the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the work that needs to be done to end homelessness in Saratoga Springs, organizers say.
“Registry Week” has taken place in 186 other US communities. This is the first time it is being conducted in Saratoga Springs.
Coordinators say the surveys will help agencies connect people to the services they most need, and that the by-name list will provide insight as to specific vulnerabilities for each person, enabling agencies to provide specified care for each person. Meantime, the Code Blue emergency shelter – which is under the auspices of Shelters of Saratoga – has been operating at near full-capacity this winter. Adhering to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that shelters service the homeless when temperatures dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit has increased Code Blue’s hours of operation.
“It’s been a challenge,” noted shelter director Cheryl Ann Murphy-Parant.
In its two full years of operation, the shelter - previously located at the Salvation Army building on Woodlawn Avenue - was open 85 and 88 nights, respectively, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Code Blue had averaged 35 nightly guests during the two years and was open a combined total of five times during the daylight hours. This winter season, through Jan. 18, the relocated shelter on Caroline Street has already been open 62 nights and 12 days, and has housed an average of 41 guests – 10 to 12 of which are women. “That (women guests) is a big jump this year,” said Murphy-Parant.
It is anticipated the data gathered from the surveys this week will be compiled in the spring and that a second “registry week” survey will be conducted locally during the warm-season months.