Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Saratoga burning

Flames could consume the Saratoga Racecourse, the state Legislature could ban thoroughbred racing and one out of every three fans that attend the burned-out track could fall ill with atomic dysentery and the whole gig would still be a success in the minds of the New York Racing Association. With waning gate receipts and a declining handle, NYRA officials proclaimed the meet a booming success. Or rather a booming success compared to the gloomy forecast offered by the normally chipper leader of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce in July.

“By any measure, the 2009 Saratoga meet was an overwhelming success,” NYRA President and CEO Charles “Chipper” Hayward told the Times Union, while sporting his best poker face.

The 2009 meet was an afterthought the week after the track opened. Despite some cheery early season anecdotal predictions from spectators divorced from reality, the lack of attendance at the track certainly didn’t translate into a more bustling downtown. Those who decided to forgo the $3 general admission price certainly didn’t take that scratch to the bars, restaurants and boutique businesses lining Broadway.

All season, downtown seemed to lack the social luster it normal glows with every time an estimated 40,000 addled revelers pile into the city proper. The scene didn’t seem as vibrant, the bars not as packed and the streets almost ghostly compared to peaks seen during the economic swell that encapsulated the region until last year.

Even with a precipitous decline in track attendance in 2008, few were willing to suggest that the lavish, faux-Manhattan attitude in Saratoga Springs had finally bitten the city in its ass. The arrogant suggestion then was that the crashing national economy –the global worldwide recession –would never befall a gem like Saratoga. Many suffered bouts of sheer hubris and decided to blame the whole dismal meet on something that nobody could dispute: The weather.

But as some are realizing now, the weather is but a small factor in the overall equation that drives –or was driving –the Capital Region’s economic powerhouse. There were many other factors other than rain that have steered people away from downtown and the track that few like to contemplate and even fewer like to discuss openly in the media.

At the top of the list is the utter identity crisis that has struck the city when all of its lower and middle income neighborhoods were gentrified; when developers began building $350,000 homes in areas where there were once affordable homes. This massive overhaul of formerly modest-priced buildings resulted in a sudden influx of tax revenue for the city. But instead of saving this as a nest egg, city leaders instead used it as an excuse to begin spending like a trust fund baby who just nailed a trifecta.

Even four years ago, there was plenty of indication that the real estate bubble was at capacity in Saratoga. Yet a clan of greedy realtors instead decided to keep inflating the fucker. Others simply raped the system in any way they could muster, sucking vast tracts of cash out of the foundation that the whole bubble was built on in the first place.

The business community did its share too by raising the prices of food, booze and everything else downtown. Some did it to stave off the ever-increasing tax burden placed on them by a City Council and City School District thoroughly unwilling to craft budgets amenable to year-round residents. Others figured the sudden rise of multi-story condominiums meant the transition from faux-Manhattan to real Manhattan was only a few years away.

And now we’re seeing the results of this bungled experiment in city building. Seldom has there been a time when two downtown businesses have decided to file for Chapter 11 protection at the apex of the meet, and another on the outskirts being seized by the government for unpaid taxes. While most businesses interviewed in the prototypical “so how did the season go” stories published this week expressed optimism over their register receipts, others seemed a bit concerned about what the fall will bring.

Amazingly, there are still some who think the tenuous situation facing the Spa City is just fine; that the summer sales tax numbers will come in, and we’ll see that Saratoga Springs is indeed recession proof. Among them is Lew Benton, the city’s resident tree counter and patronage sponge, who is assured a nice bright future suckling up to a variety of publically funded retirement plans.

Not long ago, Benton used the auspices of the Albany Times Union’s failing exercise in community-driven blogging to claim the hubbub about the city’s declining fiscal conditions was nothing but politically-driven propaganda. Overall, the piece seems like a thinly veiled advocacy of the city’s decision to leave the county sales tax equation years ago. But Benton, who is among the decision makers in the recently hijacked Democratic Committee, must paint a not-so-bleak appearance of the city’s financial condition, lest he draw the booming chorus of voices that demanded the council curb spending.

Curbing spending these days is really the only way to prevent a sudden eye-popping boost in taxes, which is something that is all but assured anyway. And a boost in the levy will certainly doom plans for his long-sought-after public safety facility; the leading stump his candidate for mayor will stand on in the coming months.

Benton is among the string-pullers directing the otherwise vapid Ron Kim, a fellow who can barely form cogent sentences on his own. He’s hoping Kim can oust Republican Mayor Scott Johnson, while another disciple –Kevin Connolly –takes control of Kim’s abandoned seat at the head of Public Safety.

The frightening part of this scenario is that neither Kim nor Benton seem overly concerned about the danger signs that are starting to crop up in just about every sector of the city’s functioning: The gloomy track receipts, the closing businesses, the aborted building projects, the $3.5 million city deficient; hell, the number of wealthy residents under indictment for real estate fraud. In fact, Kim recently voted against the city’s modest capital budget because it didn’t include the money needed to build a public safety building nearly five times the size of the facility used today.

Hopefully, these stories are still fresh in voters’ minds as they head to the polls in November, lest we end up with a council inept in its ability to adapt to the changing times. Keep in mind: There was another gilded age when city leaders thought that nothing could go wrong.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorites are the quotes from NYRA's overpaid PR agency about how the hat giveaway was so well received. Really, then why did they have 10,000 left over. Who decided on that crap (not that I really care, but it does drive attendance and ebay business).

Attendance is always up when the meet starts closer to Aug. 1. If you look at the last five years, this year was a disaster in terms of attendance and handle.

But, you could still get your $8 hot dog or $10 piece of Hatties chicken.

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see that Hidden Gardens dug themselves out of a $20,000. +/- New York State tax lien - only to have Max London LLC listed in the Times Union last week for a 49,000. NYS tax lien...more troubles on the way ?

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Screw "The Boss" !! I didn't care for that blogger-doodle at all. (well, some of it was good, but.....)

Nobody stayed on subject, and it wandered aimlessly until our hero, none other than our own HO, has come up with the blog of a daring prediction for troubled waters this election pre-season.

Where is Tommy the Tulip these days? Seen often in plaid shirts and jeans, openly telling everyone that he has never been happier. Guffaw.

HO, please tell me where Lew B stands? Is he a Dem, or a Republican? Some people have forgotten that he once donned the DPS Commish hat. As a Republican, working with the old machine, voting as directed, until one fateful day when he cast an improbable negative vote on the GOP boss' real estate deal with a certain community college. Bye bye to Lew after that mistake.

Gone, banished, but not for long.

And then the Dems took him in again. Listened to his ideas about going it alone with the sales tax....another mistake.
Lew's committees for the truck route, another failure. His wife's jobs in city hall as payment for his political endeavors. Lost her job, then got it back, then lost it again....forcing LEw to find another "job" to pay the bills.

Looking forward to this politcal pre-season, and waiting for someone to go pick up those illegal Kim signs on public rights-of-way.

Bring me a scotch, I'm getting settled in.

4:20 PM  
Anonymous PlanetAlbany said...

Is there a patronage sponge job listing on Craigslist?

5:01 PM  
Blogger muldoonmedia said...

The "faux Manhattan attitude" sentence is so spot on.

the 'divorced from reality' was another jewel. Its shows that you were paying attention this summer.

glad someone besides me is.

thanks for the great post

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HO:

Sixteen paragraphs about the plight of our city. Not a single mention of Mayor Scott Johnson. You got it exactly right. In times of trouble, he's completely invisible.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

11:57,

I've got a mixed response to that comment. Unfortunately, there is little any mayor can do to right the ship that is now sailing into the horizon, other than shout loudly about the burgeoning budgets, hardball the unions into taking a pay cut and fill the land-use boards with people who have a more salient vision of Saratoga Springs. The mayor here is one of five votes and a consensus builder among the council as a whole.

In Johnson's case, he's part of the way there. I laud him on his effort to force concessions among the unions. But the big game he seemed to talk about the budget fizzled to a whimper under Ron Kim's publicity stunt about laying off cops. And I haven't exactly seen(or heard) much from his land use board appointments.

Another thing that bothers me about Johnson, I've heard anecdotal reports that he's very inaccessible to the media and residents he doesn't know. I've read too many newspaper reports that say 'Johnson couldn't be reached for comment,' which is in fact disturbing. That's a good part of your job as mayor in this town: Talking to the people. That was the only part of the job Val Keehn seemed to understand and embrace, even though she probably would have been better off not talking to anyone. Johnson, on the other hand, is a lot like his predecessor, Mike Lenz. He's there when he's there, which is not often. And if he's not there, good luck, 'cause you're not going to find 'em.

In closing though, I still view him as a safer choice than the blustering alternative; a fellow who not only fails to grasp the city's tenuous situation, but has every intention of making it worse.


PlanetAlbany,

They don't list the 'patronage sponge' jobs too often on craigslist. Really, you've got to work your way up...try the 'party suck up' listings first...and when you've got experience there, hop into the 'political hack' category. Then, if you have the dogged determination, you can move to the 'yesmen' level. That's really the harvest field they pluck the patronage sponges from.

On a solely unrelated note, I've been receiving curious postings in some Asiatic language. I've automatically been deleting them as Spam, but now with Kim Jong Il Gate going down in the press, I'm starting to wonder...Guess I'll pay a trip to the 'ol Google translator...

8:49 AM  
Anonymous agphoto said...

Greetings HO!

A well-considered and opinionated post. No dissents. Welcome to the mean season.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This, on a day when the planning board approves a mixed use-175 residential unit project in Weible Ave. Some points are well made here. Saratoga Springs is not all sunshine and daisy's but the sky isn't falling either. The City and County seem to be weathering the economic storm better than almost every other area of the state/nation. Stay positive, it will get better as it always does because of the good people of Saratoga Springs. Mayors and City Council members come and go but Saratoga thrives any way thanks to the good people who live and work here.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I (my Broadway business) was interview by the Saratogian regarding how the "season" was. I was brutally honest. The season was down from last year 08, which was down from the year before - 07, which was down from 06. I also mentioned that rents on Broadway are equaled to rents paid in Manhattan, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. Does anyone think that Saratoga is comparable to any of those major cities? Add that to the fact that National Grid is ridiculous. Just the delivery for electric is nearly $300 for a usage of $150 monthly. Then deal with the tax situation in Saratoga and NY State.
I also mentioned that my customer is not from Saratoga. They are tourists, college parents, passers by, etc. Everyone in Saratoga seems to be "house poor" or they take their business elsewhere.

Funny - the Saratogian only printed the line that said "we were down a bit". Which wasn't even a quote from me. Saratoga has tried so hard to be more than it is capable of being. They have truly screwed the pooch.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon 12:28 speaks to the uncomfortable truth that the print journal and some running for office would prefer to disguise. For the past several years, the economic train engine was well over the top of the hill going down while those in the Saratoga caboose could only discern an illusory uphill climb.

Faulting those elected individuals whose position it was to safeguard our futures rather than behaving obstinately and acting recklessly when prudence was called for is unconscionable. Leadership and responsibility have become again, trite election time sound bites to disguise an unfortunate truth.

Saratoga Springs needs to consider its tax paying residents and its ‘home grown’ shop owners who are the lifeblood of our downtown and in large part the reason for our community. Landlords need to respond to yesterday’s inflated perception of reality. Good management and fair rents will insure long leases and respectability.

It’s time for the Council to jettison that which is unnecessary, duplicitous and too heavy so that we can stay in the air. If benefits and salaries are responsible for the bulk of the load, it may be time for strong decisions. We’re no longer climbing nor at this moment falling, but all of the warning lights are on and our wings are beginning to ice.

3:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

HO:

Today's Saratogian story on the opening of a new beverage distributor includes a photo of the Budweiser Clydesdales delivering a keg of beer for Mayor Scott Johnson. Do you think that will be enough to keep him in the suds on Friday night? I'm surprised he didn't get a six pack of kegs. Maybe they didn't know how much the mayor likes to guzzle.

4:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just reread my previous submission regarding Anon 12:28 - it should read that faulting some of those in responsible positions is accurate, because it has been their discordant and ineffective behaviors that is deserving of blame.

4:33 AM  
Anonymous Ex Brodway Shopper said...

Mr. Broadway Business,

First: Most any weekday during the daytime you play dodge-em because of the double parked delivery trucks lined up along Broadway.

Second: Certain Broadway business owners seem to always be parked in front of their store robbing a potential customer of a parking space.

Third: You charge top dollar but give little value for your offerings.

EX Broadway Shopper

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Stay away from the cans.She hates those cans said...

Keehn probably wrote

"Maybe they didn't know how much the mayor likes to guzzle"

Hey Val still bitter that match.com thing didn't work out.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3:52 wisely said "Landlords need to respond to yesterday’s inflated perception of reality. Good management and fair rents will insure long leases and respectability." This is timely since Joel Aronson is shopping lawyers so he can sue tenants that have had to move due to job losses, economic issues, and breaking leases based on problems with the Algonquin building. The Algonquin has turned into a dump. Bug infestation, mice, faulty wiring and plumbing, etc. This is what happens when a landlord no longer cares about the community and greed sets in. Shame on him.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Item #16 has just been named the Ron Kim dinner at the Korean takeout said...

Someone said:

"..It’s time for the Council to jettison that which is unnecessary, duplicitous and too heavy so that we can stay in the air..."


Eileen just has a mini-stroke over that one.

Now she'll be ringing up some "fat people are people too" advocacy group over the "heavy" reference.

12:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All you guys are great!
I love this format. Keep up the postings...

Look--We were forced to leave downtown in earlier Bush days when Strauss & Co thought it was a good idea to jack up the rent.

So -- what does Saratoga DBA have now? I dunno.
Not too my inner city residents running shops, for sure.

I used to love walking to work.
I still live a few blocks from Broadway.

Anyway -- I don't see very many locals kicking back to the community anymore, just tax shelters and greed monger landlords.

The end is near? Hmmm.
That's okay -- it's a cycle.
Too bad only the little guys get hurt.

AND--what's with all these damn vinyl plastic advertising banners on Broadway? The look so desperately cheap. No class.

Horatio -- maybe you can do a rant on that?

Sigh.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous My Tummy Hurts said...

I need to go take a big Ron Kim

6:17 AM  

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