Monday, July 31, 2006

Celebrity watch

For those who were too busy spinning the turnstiles at the track Sunday, the celebrity watch has started: Hawk from the early 80s television sci-fi series Buck Rodgers.

Get your cameras ready, folks, ‘cause Thom Christopher has been spotted in the Spa City. Perhaps he’s better known for his appearances on Law and Order or daytime soap, One Life to Live. He was one of three “celebrities” at a trackside Q-and-A as part of a fundraiser for the Special Olympics.

Joining him was Fox 23’s John Gray, who’s best known for his nightly segment called Tool Time. Oh wait, that’s just his nightly newscast. And who could have a celebrity extravaganza without the Saratoga Racecourse's newly anointed Travers queen Yolanda Vega. Now that’s a lineup to draw out the paparazzi.

True, the work they’re doing is to raise money for the Special Olympics, which everyone can agree is a good cause. But when an aging B-show supporting actor, a local anchor and the lottery queen are the only headliners you can attract to a worthy event, it’s time for organizers to go back to the drawing board, because that’s a lineup that won’t raise much of anything other than questions like who the hell is Thom Christopher.

Were organizers in a pinch for plausible celebrities, they should have asked the Rod Stewart look-alike to answer some questions for the cameras. People don’t even care anymore that he’s not the real thing.

Poll catching

Catching on in the net-happy world of the print media is the unabashed use of highly unscientific online polls, which often amount to little more than a gimmick, given their highly unreliable nature. Gimmick, on the other hand, is a major understatement for the abomination that The Saratogian tries to pawn off as a poll.

Were there actually an intelligent poll question worth answering, the device could be a fairly good litmus test for an editorial writer looking to see how contentious a given subject is among the public. When several thousand people hit the poll in the first moments its up, then that’s a sure fire indication of a strong issue that should be expounded.

But showing their typical colors, Saratogian editors use the poll as away to be cute and catchy. Given some of the questions –like Thursday’s gem: what would you do for a Todd Pletcher bobble head doll –it’s a far cry to even give the questions that much credit. Better yet, today’s beauty: Do you wish you had your own island? Gee, let me think about that Sherlock.

On a side note, 39 percent of the 43 online readers that took the aforementioned poll actually couldn’t dream of owning their own island, which is a sad commentary about the imaginative capacities of some.

Regardless, here’s some poll advice for the bustling e-board at The Saratogian, which in truth is nothing more than prancing editor Barbara Lombardo and desk jockey Connie Jenkins.

First, try asking your staff what a good poll question might be; they work in the trenches and probably have a better idea of what’s actually important in the grand scheme of news. And given the already lacking editorial page, there’s an obvious disconnect between them and the city. Second, try leaving the poll up for more than 24 hours, maybe instead keeping the same question for a full week so that more than 50 people can give it a read. Lastly, do something —anything –with the results.

Then again, if mindless tripe like “are you going to the race track this season” is an overriding example of a thought-out poll, then maybe not posting a poll at all would be a better idea. At least then, people would need to read the paper to realize how much of a joke it actually is.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Breaking news: race season begins today

Just in case you haven’t tuned in to Capital News 9 recently, racing season is coming. Yes, this is a fact that few people in Saratoga Springs or the Capital Region could ever forget, given the steady procession of horse trailers up the Northway and the veritable inundation of more than 50,000 tourists from around the country.

Still in the dark about when racing season starts? Well, grab the remote and surf over to Capital News 9. They won’t let you forget.

While every media team within 50 miles of the Spa City has produced at least one report about the annual opening of the racecourse, News 9 has managed to shoot no less than six segments about the track opening over a three-day spell. To put this into perspective, that’s exactly two more stories than they’ve done on the Porco trial, a case they began publicizing daily back in June even before a jury was selected.

Let’s count the off, shall we? First, there’s Gearing up for opening day, which followed Saratoga’s opener only one day away. One day earlier there was Getting ready for the races, a report which trailed Opening week at the track. Previous to all of this, News 9 aired Open house brings people back, which was of course previewed by Saratoga race track appetizer. That’s more overboard than during the Ethan Allen tragedy.

True, there hasn’t been a lot of breaking news to report in the Spa City over the last three days. There are, however, plenty of other things going on around the area that don’t involve Union Avenue and might be worth a call or three.

Still unreported by News 9’s Saratoga bureau is the suspension-without-pay of Sgt. Dan “Sunshine” Noeker from the city police force, which is an amazing concept given the channel’s previous preoccupation with the Dreyer scandal last year. Or better yet, a report about the impending sale and $10 million price tag on Broadway’s Adelphi Hotel, as story that made the rounds in every regional newspaper.

And if that’s not enough to draw them away from the track for a minute, then perhaps they could come up with a compelling story within the racecourse confines. Maybe a feature about lead Racing Judge Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, a black man who’s watched the track’s progression from the civil rights movement of the 60s to the present day. Now, he’s arguably the most powerful man at the track, perched nearly five stories high and deciding the outcome of each race.

But all those stories would take work. It’s probably much easier to combine a NYRA press release and some stock footage to harp on about when the bloody track will open and what kind of bobble head doll they’ll be doling out to the spinners this week.

Editor’s note: in the time it took to file this piece, Capital News 9 reworked its Web site and produce yet another report about track season. Unfortunately, they pulled one of their previous postings, maybe because someone over there realized how unbelievably ridiculous it is to have seven stories that essentially say the same thing.

Getting personal

Those with even a hint a journalistic savvy know there’s no “I” in reporter. There is you, the reader, and they, the subject of the reporting, but the writer him or herself is often omitted as a voice to help maintain a sense of objectivity –even though objectivity itself is often very contrived among members of the media.
But thanks in part to the first-person naratives often used in the so-called blogosphere, there seems to be an increasing habit of reporters –or more likely editors prodding reporters –to generate personal accounts of the stories they’re covering. In the past week, the Post-Star and The Saratogian have generated a total of three such accounts.

Granted, the Post-Star is no stranger to experimenting with journalism. Their whole Web site is a quasi-graveyard to failed experiments in the field, such as the “video reports” and “online exclusives.” In a more recent excursion in experimental reporting, the Post-Star’s staffers are now penning first-person accounts to stand along side online feature articles.

First, there was the account of one reporter’s attempts to harness a heifer at the Saratoga County Fair, something that even the people showing them probably glossed over while reading the paper. Coincidentally on the same day, a Saratogian reporter gave readers his thoughts about his first water-skiing attempt in many years, which coincidentally was just as uninspiring as the Post-Star’s piece. And then this week, another Post-Star reporter gave her first-person account of riding a mechanical thoroughbred; a quirky if not kinky subject that is a bit more interesting than binding bovines or beginner water-skiing, however not by much.

Granted, these stories give a human element to their respective writers, which is a good addition to journalism; as any experienced pen jockey could attest, writing is always much more compelling when the writer is fully immersed in a story. And too often do newsreaders simply garner information from articles, rather than giving consideration to the fact that a human mind and not a computer created what they are reading.

But with this said, these reporters need to do something out of the ordinary –say base-jumping off some towering mesa in South America or maybe yoking a water-skiing cow while mounted on an adjacent mechanical thoroughbred –to truly utilize the first-person narrative for flavor. Yet in all three of the aforementioned cases, these reporters chose –or perhaps were assigned –vastly mundane topics that most people either have or could experience on any given Sunday.

Also, there’s a strange line of formality that’s crossed when the subjective first-person narrative is employed. That’s a tough line to cross too, when your job generally hinges on maintaining distance and objectivity.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Blog this, Times Union

The blog-happy Times Union has done it again. With the number of blogs posted on their Web site continuing to proliferate at an alarming rate, the newspaper’s editors have charged their Saratoga Bureau to create an online posting site for reporters to chronicle racing season. Problem is, they really have nothing to say about racing season so far, namely because it hasn’t started. Or at least in their eyes.

Truth is, the so-called season started weeks ago; ask any resident navigating the city’s choking traffic and they’ll tell you so. And the tone of Saratoga Seen has already been set as a place for the reporters to dump useless press releases or discuss the most recent bar they happened to have a cocktail at; in two words, it’s boring. In a whole sentence, get the coffee and nodoez if you want to get through this drivel, because the term “uninspired writing” is a massive understatement for this account of the Spa City.

Regardless of the prissy image that most business folk and debutants like to forge for Saratoga Springs, there’s a lot of color and life throughout the city that doesn’t involve racetracks, fine dining and nights at the ballet. Indeed, there are stories out there to tell that don’t conform to this image and therefore never get told.

Perhaps this is something that these recalcitrant writers can put in their pipe and smoke before their blog becomes an ancillary afterthought to the adrenaline-pumping race season as it barrels through the city without respite.

Ditch the polish and roll up the sleeves. Talk to the people in the corners, not the cocky fools at galas reveling in their own finery. Give the city the real image it deserves, for better or for worse. And for the sake of good writing, don’t dump trite, emotionless press releases into a file called “Saratoga Seen” as if anyone of your writers has actually witnessed what goes on here once the camera lights are dimmed.

To do this takes effort; it takes a working knowledge of not just the city’s plutocrats, but of the plebeians as well. This takes an unwavering love for all this city has to offer, whether it’s the obnoxious tourists barging carelessly down Broadway or the coke fiend looking for a score before they go to work serving that rude bastard an evening meal.

There’s an air that’s blowing into the city now that will linger for the next eight weeks, then vanish with the autumn wind. And when that time comes and the plug is finally pulled on the Time Union’s watered-down blog, there will undoubtedly be stories left to tell.

You're being watched

They could be following you to the grand stand. They might skulk out of a dark corner by the pari-mutuel windows. They may well be watching your every move as you navigate the droves of tourists at the Saratoga Race Course this season, just waiting for that one moment when you fumble for a local map while looking unwittingly lost.

That’s when they’ll move in for the kill.

No, they’re not members of the Spa City’s nefarious underworld, waiting to prey on the flock of unsuspecting tourists. They’re just the most recent ploy by the business community to draw more track attendees to Saratoga’s shops and restaurants downtown.

These mobile “hospitality teams” will don festive red vests and straw hats, then fan out among the track’s entrance points to cheerily greet the ebb and flow of fans as the percolate through the venue. This mostly local squad of a dozen information specialists will also brandish brochures directing people on how to have a “SPActacular day” while visiting the city.

That’s not a misspelling either.

Previously, these folks sat stationary at kiosk spread throughout the track; that simply wasn’t clear enough for first-timers to hunt down, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Joe Dalton told The Saratogian. So, taking page from customer service manuals of retail giants like Wal-mart and Target, leaders from the New York Racing Association, the Chamber and the Downtown Business Association decided the teams would be instrumental in helping people find downtown.

What these groups didn’t take into consideration is the direct correlation between having trouble finding downtown after a day at the races and that person’s blood alcohol content. For most sober people, however, the path to downtown is fairly, if not blisteringly clear: follow the long strip of multi-million dollar mansions and the omnipresent smell of money; if you’ve reach the Northway, you’re either drunk, have no common sense or a combination of both.

It’s not to say that everything is easy to find in Saratoga –actually everything is fairly easy to find –but that it is effort that could be easily spent doing more beneficial things for a community, which already caters enough to the ravenous tourists.

Granted, summer visitors are this lavish city’s bread and butter. There comes a point when these gimmicks become overkill, especially for a city populous that’s still reeling from the summer of staring at the heinous plastic horses along Broadway. And when a person has missed hitting a $10,000 trifecta in a race determined by a photo finish, any advances by the cheery smiles from the Walmart-esque hospitality team could easily be met with open if not outward hostility.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Are you ready for this?

Cue up the 2 Unlimited and crank on the fog machine, because the irresistible pairing of David Blaine and the Shenendehowa High School cheerleaders are coming to a capital city library near you.

And if that’s not enough, New York State Librarian Janet Welch, a heavy-hitter among librarian circles, is also slated to appear along side the unlikely pairing of adolescent cheerleading and celebrity magic. Together, the trio will appear at the Albany Public Library’s main branch on Washington Avenue for a Tuesday afternoon pep rally.

No, the Plainsman’s varsity squad isn’t joining the enigmatic illusionist to film the much-anticipated third sequel to the cheerleading cult-classic Bring It On. Blaine and the cheerleaders are pairing together with Welch to help promote the state Library’s Statewide Summer Reading Program.

During his childhood in Brooklyn, Blaine was apparently turned on to the craft of magic after reading about renowned escape artists Harry Houdini. Now, he’s the spokesman for the state’s annual campaign, called Books: A Treasure. To augment this story and add a bit of 21st century sporting edge to the whole affair, the cheerleaders have prepared several special routines to perform along side the magician.

Now if only Blaine could magically make some books appear in Albany’s choked public library system.

Those who haven’t been to the main branch of the state capital’s library aren’t missing much, because there’s really not much there. Like many public libraries around the state, Albany’s system lacks the funding necessary to deliver a quality selection of materials at any of its branches given the size of the city’s population.

Simply put, the Albany Public Library system is in dreadful need of an overhaul, so that it can look a bit more like the apple of the state’s public library system, rather than a boil. So perhaps Blaine’s appearance is also in part to promote the coming referendum vote in Albany aimed at bolstering some of the library’s flailing branches.

Perplexing however is the decision to bus in Shen cheerleaders for a summer reading drive nearly 20 miles away from the white-bred suburban sprawl of Clifton Park in neighboring Saratoga County. Then again, maybe it’s because district parents are trying to find a few good-natured extracurricular activities for their kids after hearing the results of the Shen Pen’s Ballout report last spring.

Editor’s note: Not a single Capital Region media source bothered to cover poor Blaine and the cheerleaders. Shame on you, media. What a waste of a perfectly good circus sideshow.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Rudy for school board

Watching the public education system’s governance in action is much akin to watching a massive train wreck, only in super-slow motion. Thanks to state and federal mandates, districts are finding themselves increasingly strapped for cash come budget time.

And that’s before factoring in the carte blanche back-room deals popularly elected school boards often engage in with the teachers’ union. Such was the case this week in Stillwater, one of two Saratoga County districts, which symbolically shot down their school budget this year.

In a move of shear ignorance, the district’s board passed a nearly 4 percent raise in the starting salary of first-year teachers from a modest $29,000 to an eye-popping $35,000 a year –not a bad salary for a someone in their mid-20’s fresh out of graduate school with a degree in education. This also isn’t taking into account any district pension payments or insurance co-pays.

Automatic 3 percent raises –regardless of teacher performance –bring that figure to roughly $47,000 after a decade of service. That’s also assuming the teacher’s union keeps the same contract for the next decade, which they most certainly won’t. On a side note, kudos to the district for not increasing the top salary schedule away from its present $71,000.

Granted, this isn’t CEO money. None of the Stillwater teachers are liable to be buying Leer jets or Ferraris. However, the living they’re making is quite nice, especially seeing as though they’ve got the whole summer free, during which time they can get either get a doctorate or a degree in administration to bump them into the six-figure category.

For people who have young children, this isn’t a problem. Teaching is a difficult job and there’s most certainly a hefty price tag affixed to a child’s ear, as he or she passes into kindergarten. But for others –mainly those who aren’t interested in bequeathing a good part of their property to the district –these raises are problematic.

Even more problematic is the furtive method the district and union bargaining units use to draw up these contracts. Most districts will have the superintendent hash out the details with union reps behind closed doors. Then, during an executive session conducted out of the public eye, the super will pitch the plan to the school board. If there’s a quorum and enough affirmative votes, the deal hits the agenda and is passed with little or no discussion among the public.

That is until the budget vote. As most know, voting down the budget in this day and age means very little to the standard taxpayer. District spending increases are often a result of costly building projects, legislated mandates, teacher contracts or any combination of the three. This means any budget shot down twice by voters simply becomes classified as contingent, meaning all funding not pertinent to the above three purposes is often hacked away.

Generally, this means cutting after-school programs or school supplies. School boards will also threaten to cut the much-beloved sports programs –as was the case of Mechanicville, the other county district to shoot down their budget. This is a rouse, however, used by the boards to goad the public into ponying up more money, as the aforementioned district recently proved.

Even given this knowledge, budgets discussions often prompt every yokel from miles around to storm into the oft-empty school board meetings to raise Cain. They’ll moan about property taxes and lavish district spending, but by this point, there’s nothing left to do but watch the train wreck unfold in all its majesty; to stare in frozen astonishment as otherwise civil neighbors publicly engage in primal vitriolic tantrums.

Of course, when school board elections come around, no one really wants to run. These days, most candidates are elected unopposed; those who do run often have a vested interest in either public education or getting more money to the district. Where does the fire-spitting person on a fixed-income go? Usually, it’s back in the hole from whence they came from until the next budget season, when they’ll rise again.

See, voters are fickle when it comes to electing people who will fight for their interests. That’s especially the case when it comes to the education system’s public-enemy number one: state and federal legislators. These are the same clowns that find no problem with gutting public education funding, then demanding that schools teach even those who don’t want to be taught. After all, there are a significant amount of kids that would be perfectly happy laying pavement rather than attending Harvard pre-med.

The solution to the educational conundrum is one that echoes throughout every segment of state and federal government: rework the system to be lean and efficient; stop doing studies and start affecting change. Either that or nominate Rudy to be on your local school board. After all, he brought home the bacon for Mechanicville.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Make them an offer they can't refuse

Were honesty a hallmark of state government, the division of Lottery would admit to running a strong-arm mob syndicate in Saratoga Springs large enough to make even the Gambino family jealous.

Lottery is the Legislature’s big boss to shake the last few pennies and dimes from the lower-class and fixed income populations. Much like the prototypical mob boss, Lottery isn’t altogether too concerned about how many skulls get cracked as they fill the Legislature’s coffers with so-called education funding. And now they’ve got unions on their side too.

Having successfully used a couple loopholes in the state constitution to muscle into the Spa City, Lottery now has plans to add to its burgeoning Mecca at the harness track off Nelson Avenue, regardless of how it will impact one of the state’s only successful cities. There’s not much in the way to stop them either.

When the idea for a “racino” first dawned on Saratoga, the city council wasn’t exactly thrilled about the idea. Nor was the Chamber of Commerce, which saw the idea as a cash vortex that would have a similar affect on downtown businesses as legalized gambling did in Atlantic City, N.J. But after years of fruitless court battles, the Saratoga Gaming and Raceway opened it’s doors.

Since that time, no one really knows what the racino’s impact has been on the city’s businesses, much less the state’s population. The only certain thing is the cash vortex on Nelson Avenue is making the state money somehow. This is the argument Lottery officials give for the unadulterated expansion of the racino, a prospect that has some city officials and residents a bit nervous about the future.

See, the racino’s impending $16 million expansion project has been in the works for sometime now. In fact, just four short years ago, track-don Skip Carlsson was trying to railroad through a plan for a $4 million 60,000-square-foot arena. But the project was pulled, after city leaders decided the impending video lottery terminal decision coupled with expanding what was then Saratoga Equine Sports Center would produce a self-contained entertainment metropolis that could threaten the vitality of down town.

But now that the racino has Lottery’s backing, it falls under the purview of the state, not the local government, which can only sigh like a bleating wildebeest as the expansion project goes through. Not to mention, Lottery also has the muscle of UNITE HERE Local 471, otherwise known as the builder’s union or one of the more influential gangs of organized labor in construction-happy Saratoga Springs.

Adding to this power is the support of Democrat and long-time Public Works fixture Tom McTygue, one of the city’s veritable power brokers, who himself is a vocal proponent of harness racing –perhaps because he owns and breeds standard-bred horses. He’s not alone either, among powerful politicians either outwardly or tacitly supporting the racino expansion. As irony would have it, McTygue, the racino’s horseman’s union and Local 471, among many other unions, endorsed Republican Sen. Joseph “Hollywood” Bruno in his bid for 2006 confirmation –why bother using the term election.

Yes, state Lottery has amassed quite the collection of players at the harness track before even figuring in the sweetheart deals the New York Racing Association has pitched their way.

In June, NYRA agreed to allow the racino to simulcast the meet’s daily races, meaning bettors can simply waltz in an place wagers without needing to bother with the $3 admission at the flat track. Then to top the whole sordid mess off, Lottery has managed to sleaze the way onto the flat track’s top billing for the next two year’s: the annual Travers’ Day stakes, sponsored by the New York State Lottery.

Don’t worry though. Lottery still hasn’t managed to get Yolanda Vega elected into the Spa City’s mayor’s office. They’ll need to wait until 2007 to do that.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Waterford Vice

Where would Saratoga County be without the uber cops of the Waterford Police Department? Probably neck deep in Petuli-smelling spliff-smoking fiends, each ravenously shoveling down bean and rice burritos while jamming to bootlegs of the ‘78 Dead show at Red Rocks. Oh, the horror. The horror.

Or at least that’s the impression these cops have set out to give via their latest press conference over a marijuana plant seizure. Indeed, more than a hundred cannabis plants can produce a sizeable cache of drugs –that is if such said plants ever grow to produce drugs. And in this case, it doesn’t appear as though they did.

Going by what was reported in the Troy Record and by News Channel 9, it seems as though the Waterford Police busted up a pair of unassuming potheads attempting to grow a cash crop to proliferate among their friends. But Waterford Police Sgt. Patrick O'Connell seems to think these two stoners –with their bongs and pro-mix –could give Hollywood’s Scarface a run for his money.

Apparently, so does the judge. Both suspects are now being held in county jail on $30,000 bail, an amount that’s not readily produced by a dope-smoking couple in their early 20s, drugs or no drugs. That means both of these people will likely rot in a tax-funded jail, eating tax-funded food and wearing tax-funded uniforms until someone they know can scrape together 10 percent of their bail to sacrifice to a bondsman.

Granted, marijuana is a dangerous drug that should be taken seriously. Some people who smoke it are dangerously at risk of spending most of the day on the couch eating Cheetos and watching Beavis and Butthead reruns. Others could end up not showering for several days, then donning a tie-dyed shirt and paisley skirt for an afternoon of bongo playing in the park. Yes, marijuana abuse has some dire consequences.

In the case of these most recent cultivators sent up the river, they’re bail is as high as some being held in jail for manufacturing methamphetamine or selling crack cocaine. The big difference is the later both have very pronounced impacts on the well-being of society, while the potheads generally don’t. In fact, potheads really don’t have much of an affect on anything, other than the attendance at the Phil Lesh concert each year.

Given this argument, the authorities would probably claim these two people growing pot would eventually use their operation to springboard into producing meth or selling crack, therefore their arrest rids society of to dangerous subversives. But is their any compelling link between growing weed and future hard drug proliferation that would warrant the taxpayers having to fully supporting two able-bodied members of society?

Not according to Dr. Pierre-Bernard Roques. A study conducted by the French research scientist in 1998 found that tobacco and alcohol –both which are legal among Americans 21-years of age or older –were the two substances that most often lead to harder drug use. Marijuana, on the other hand, was found to be rather innocuous in comparison.

But jail is a burgeoning industry that wouldn’t survive, were it not for a readily harvested crop of criminals to fill the cells of every new prison built. So Waterford’s version of Cheech and Chong will spend a fair amount of time in jail, then pay steep legal bills or have the taxpayers foot the cost of their public defender as they navigate through the justice system. When they’re eventually railroaded into a short-term jail sentence, maybe they can hang with 33-year-old Brian Carignan, who’s presently rotting in the clink on the taxpayer’s dime for growing weed inside his home.

All this for growing a plant that once grew freely and was widely cultivated across America’s amber fields of gold. That is until the government decided to stigmatize the cannabis plant for being nature’s drug factory.

True, New York has gone a long way to decriminalize small-time marijuana users. But let’s face it, when a pair of small-time cultivators are sent to jail on bail tantamount to a suspected crack dealer, there’s a few kinks in the justice system that still need to be ironed out.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bring in the relief pitcher

Dale Easter just can’t seem to get a break. For more than six months now, the long-time owner and part-time fixture at Professor Moriarty’s on Broadway has been trying to off-load the flailing business he’s owned for nearly two decades. And he almost had a deal too, until the question of rent came up.

For those unfamiliar with Moriarity’s, it’s the visibly deteriorating beer-and-burger joint at the mouth of the Spa City’s Bourbon Street. At one point, Sherlock Holmes-themed eatery was one of the most popular in town, drawing a bar crowd three deep during the summers and grossing over a million dollars in annual sales. But for years now, Moriarity’s has languished due to its unbelievably high overhead and some gross mismanagement.

Initially, Moriarty’s –the business itself –was given a price tag somewhere in the range of $500,000; the gold-mine location is leased by Bill Walbridge, who coincidentally owns the Walbridge Building. Given the restaurant’s present lack-luster condition, however, he was ended up knocking a good $200,000 off the asking price, which attracted buyer Laura LaPoint, the estranged wife of former lack-luster Major League Baseball pitcher Dave LaPoint; or at least that’s the word on the street.

For those who don’t know either LaPoint, Dave was the southpaw in the pitching rotation of the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, which went on to win the World Series in seven games against the Milwaukee Brewers. Later in his career, he pitched for two of the worst New York Yankees teams ever assembled in ball club history. Sometime after retiring in 1991, he landed up back in his native Glens Falls and opened Pitcher’s, a sports bar venue known for its live entertainment acts.

The business was later taken over by Laura, who operated it until 2005, when it was apparently sold to the Mehalick family and renamed Hotshots. Some say the business took quite a hit in its later years due partially to a bad crowd and couple of staffers slinging dope from behind the bar, but that’s largely hearsay.

Nevertheless, lady LaPoint was poised to dive back into the restaurant business full bore until she saw what Walbridge intended charge her for rent –to put this into a prospective business owner’s perspective, the location rented for about $4,500 a month just under a decade ago. Now, the whole deal is reportedly up in the air, although the most recent word on the street is that landlord and tenant have come to agreeable terms.

Hopefully the deal goes through for the sake of the location, which is one of the more prominent in the city. Now, it’s in dire need of a $10,000 facelift to succeed; And a pre-sale disagreement over rent is not a good indicator for a joint on the mend.

This might sound like a trivial business brief that’s been overly expounded with the minutia of a generally overlooked professional baseball career. But failed business deals resulting from the high Broadway rents are indicative of the disaster that’s slowly unfolding downtown. Local businesses simply can’t afford the astronomical rents and, thanks to rising property taxes, landlords aren’t likely to stop raising them any time soon.

So who gets off cheap? Look no further than the monolithic buildings being erected throughout the city. Most of the builders made sweetheart deals with the city so they’re afforded a massive tax break for the first decade after their construction. While this is a standard business practice to promote development, it’s also has the effect of short changing the many businesses that helped pull the Spa City from the ashes back during the 70s.

There’s no easy solution to solve this conundrum of high rents on Broadway and the increasing number of businesses that can’t afford them. And if something isn’t done soon, look forward to a main street lined with chain stores, such as Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s, which can afford the high overhead and not have to worry about where next month’s rent money is going to come from.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Lock your trike here

Editor's note: Choking heat, a chilled shot of bourbon and a smattering of sinus congestion lead to an inaccuracy in this post, which was pointed out by a sharp-eyed reader today, then later corrected. Indeed, there's bicycle riding allowed in the city’s business district, just not in many places where it could be construed as safe.

Grab your bikes and head for downtown Saratoga Springs, because the Public Works department has a treat for you. And so do the strapping uniformed officers of the Saratoga Springs Police Department.

In a move to generate more bike traffic and less vehicle traffic, public works has decided to bring in 16 nifty-looking bike racks, designed in part to mimic the hitching posts of yesteryear that once adorned every storefront in the city.

Unlike the more traditional racks, the new designs are shaped with a single pedestal of steel and two semi-circles on either side for bike riders to lean or lock their hogs. Topping these innovative racks are metal horse heads holding small tie rings in their noses, just in case someone comes riding into downtown atop a burro.

Public works guru Tom McTygue says the smaller racks are designed to go in front of stores in spaces where the traditional racks wouldn’t fit. Thus, the city’s biking community –previously relegated to chaining their rides to street signs, trees or other stationary objects –will have more adequate spaces throughout the city’s business district to stow their rides.

This would make perfect sense, were bike riding in downtown Saratoga Springs legal, which it’s not. The city’s code specifically prohibits riding a bicycle, skateboard, or in-line skates on any sidewalk within what’s referred to as the “C-1 business district,” an area which the beat cops will insist is every street located within two blocks east or west of Broadway –even though this prohibition extends much further than this.

On a side note, it should be mentioned that tricycles are a perfectly legitimate forms of transportation that can be operated freely on all sidewalks and streets within the city limits, according to the “play vehicle” section of the code. It should also be noted that bicycles are legal to ride on city streets, provided the rider is intrepid enough to brave the barreling semis, non-exsistent shoulders and choked traffic of the outlined business district.

Bicycles, in fact, have an entire section aimed at regulating them. Among the provisions is a law stipulating that all city residents are to license their bikes with city police and keep a “license plate” affixed to their ride where the cops can readily identified it.

Any violation of these rules is punishable by a fine $50o or a 15-day jail sentence, according to the law. Persistent violators are subject to a $100 fine or imprisonment for up to 45 days –or both. Three convictions within 18 months can bring a fine of $250 or a jail term of 90 days, which, incidentally, is more time than one city man got for killing another with his car in February 2005.

City cops aren’t afraid of chasing down bikers either, although most residents know their general preference is to simply to warn cyclists. It’s the skateboarders who usually have to contend with tickets or having their boards confiscated by police.

Still, it’s ironic that city leaders are now tacitly advocating for people to break the ordinance they passed during the 70s and reaffirmed in the late 80s. And if anyone among the illustrious city council argues that bike riders will walk their bikes from the edge of the so-called business district to where the prominently located racks will be placed, then they’re quite out of touch with reality.

Perhaps the reason they’re not too worried about this legal conundrum is that the police department’s lead bike cop has reportedly has been suspended without pay. Dan Noeker, an oft-ornery police sergeant who once shacked up with former deputy Public Safety Commissioner Erin Dreyer, is apparently no longer on active duty, according to The Saratogian.

Perhaps this has something to do with his leadership over the generally useless bike patrol which more or less exists solely to enforce the bike and “play vehicle” ordinance. In grand jury testimony, Noeker said he ostensibly nicknamed the bike patrol “Satan’s helpers” even after his superiors told him that this would reinforce divisions forming within the department.

“At the time, it was a esprit-de-corps thing, getting everybody together, but I noticed at that time the administration seemed to think it was too much of a [clique] I was creating among the bike patrol members,” testified the officer in 2004. “I did it to further that [clique], mostly because the administration didn't like it.”

Despite Noeker’s reprimand –more than likely for violating the department’s chain of command or perhaps just being an ornery fascist –the bike patrol continues to ride the city. But many frequent downtown patrons say these patrols are in a much diminished capacity.

Still, don’t be surprised if one of these riding cops skulks out of the shadows to issue a nice fat ticket to anyone dismounting their bike by downtown’s spiffy new racks. Given this risk, the best bet is to stay off the traditional bicycle and instead find a good tricycle or burro to park at the racks while on a downtown shopping excursion.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce que c'est

There’s no doubt that convicted kidnapper and suspected serial rapist John Regan is a pretty bad dude. But how bad still seems up for debate, as the former Waterbury, Conn., man is sent up the river for the next decade or so.

For those living in a cocoon over the past nine months, Regan is the fellow who said he was “trying to ask for directions” from the cargo bay of his van when he “accidentally” threw his arms around the waist of a 17-year-old all-state cross country runner in the Saratoga Spring High School parking lot.

Note to Regan: Police generally don’t buy these excuses when they find a tarp, a rope with a slip knot, a shovel and a camera filled with pictures of young women in the back of what some would call a child molester van. Needless to say, he had little choice but to fess up to his crime, especially after he learned that hanging himself wasn’t a way out that the authorities would let him take.

From all published accounts, the former roofing salesman was sort of a character chameleon, one who seemed like a quiet and unassuming family guy on the outside, but was a raving sex-charged misogynist on the inside. Were this all to the story, it could be put to rest until Regan pleas for leniency before a state parole board.

But there are still questions that remain unanswered about Regan’s motives and his capacity as a criminal. Many have speculated publicly about Regan’s involvement in other missing persons cases, a curiosity that is spurred on by the sheer audacity of his abduction attempt. The details that have been released about the case suggest a calculated plan to abduct a young woman and one he may have tried before.

Just four months prior to Regan’s arrest, 20-year-old Christina White of Milton was reported missing by her mother. By most accounts, she was a quiet part-time community college student who hung with the area Goths, a crew of black cape-wearing vampire-looking folk known for their dusk skulkings around the Rock City Road vicinity.

In hindsight, White was a red flag for an attack; she lived a fairly anonymous lower-middle class life in the Saratoga Stockade Trailer Park, a predominantly rural area of the county. She was of slight build weighing less than 100 pounds and was reported to have bi-polar disorder. She wasn’t regularly employed and was also known for disappearing at times, often for several days at a spell.

In short, only her family and close friends would've ever recognized her disappearance.

Perhaps that’s something her killer learned through passive observation. Nine months after her disappearance, White’s bleached bones were found in a pine-tree outcropping by a hiker, 100 feet into the 550-acre Daketown Forest preserve -six-miles north from where her mother last saw her.

Forensic investigators later determined through markings on White’s skeletal remains that she had been stabbed to death. They estimated she died shortly after her disappearance in late June 2005, her cell phone and bank account remained untouched after she vanished. Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department investigators repeatedly declined to identify what else may have been found at the scene or where she had been stabbed.

Four months after the grisly discovery of White’s remains, both the media and the investigators have fallen silent on the case. But lodged in her missing persons photo, there’s an odd haunting; a quiet pleading in the young girl’s soft eyes that aught to be permanently fused into the minds of investigators until they find her savage killer.

It’s possible the authorities are waiting for a jail-side confession from Regan, who might begin to talk as his convictions mount. The nightmarish alternative is that White’s killer still walks among us, searching out the next perfect target. Given this, it’s amazing that more pressure isn’t being placed on the authorities to find and arrest a suspect, who could be in waiting for the right moment to strike again.

Then again, White wasn’t an all-star standout athlete from a high school on the affluent side of the tracks.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Power brokers

Knowledge is power, no matter which way you slice it. These days, it takes an increasing amount of knowledge to know each sentence of the state’s ever-widening book of criminal law. Hence, those who manage a good, operant knowledge of these laws often end up with a fair amount of power.

Most times, these people are called district attorneys.

They’ve got the power to regulate the flotsam and jetsam of arrests percolating out of the police department, choosing when and how aggressively to pursue a case, which is a power that usually adds an unmistakable glean of arrogance to their veneer. In other words, they’re not the type of people you want to bump into in a dark courtroom with a few charges pending.

But add to a prosecutor’s bag of tricks an unregulated voice in the press and you’ve got one audacious lawyer steering the freight train of justice through the land. That appears to be the case in Rensselaer County, where Patricia DeAngelis has a large enough ego to pen her own bi-weekly column the Troy Record –and they’ve got the audacity to print it.

The column recently got DeAngelis into a bit of hot water with the local fire department, as reported by a blogger and a Daily Gazette columnist, after she speculated that they could employ a sex offender as a one of their volunteers. And who really wants a pederast performing CPR on little Jimmy after he’s swallowed too much pool water?

Worse yet, the proselytizing prosecutor also suggested that parents might need to refuse medical attention for the progeny, were someone they know or suspect of being a sex offender shows up to an emergency donning rescue garb. Rightfully, her comments drew a strict rebuke from the fire department’s chief, who castigated the DeAngelis for even suggesting that people consider refusing emergency care.

Granted, DeAngelis was trying to make a point, the point being, let’s get more laws on the books. More laws means more crime, which in turn means more prosecutions to boast about come election time in November. Not to mention, boasting of a hard line on sex offenders is always a good way to accrue a good report with the voting public.

Why DeAngelis –the heir apparent of another dim-bulb DA named Mary Donahue –even has a column in the Record is somewhat bewildering. Most self respecting news organizations aren’t too keen on providing elected officials with regular column space.

But for a news agency like the Journal Register Company, this pandering to district attorneys isn’t anything new, especially in the Capital Region. Take for instance the Record’s sister paper to the north, The Saratogian, which all but run campaign posters for District Attorney James Murphy.

While Murphy doesn’t appear as brazen in his actions as DeAngelis, he’s also got a few interesting tick marks on his record that aren’t readily reported by the paper which unabashedly supports him. One such case was the tragic death of 70-year-old Bob Gorham, after he was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while clearing snow from his neighbor’s driveway.

The accident may or may not have been avoidable, depending on the sobriety of Larry Bovee, the off-duty public works employee who fled the scene. One thing is for certain, he rushed home and had a few cocktails before returning to the scene –that’s according to several off-the-record comments Murphy apparently made after the accident.

But in the end, Bovee landed a deal with Murphy’s office that garnered him only 20 weekends in jail and a three-year probation sentence for killing a man. An assistant later said there was no way to prove Bovee had left the scene of the accident, despite the fact that police responding to the accident searched the city for the offending car before finding it parked neatly at his home several blocks away.

Of course, The Saratogian, in a campaign-season editorial written less than three weeks after Bovee’s sentencing, offered their wholehearted support for Murphy, an unchallenged incumbent. The paper described him as a prosecutor who “refuses to allow plea bargains for repeat DWI offenders,” which must have been a misprint, given Murphy’s treatment of Bovee, who had a prior record of drunken driving.

For newspapers and reporters, there’s a fine line that must be ridden with prosecutors, who ultimately control a good deal of the ebb and flow of crime news. This doesn’t mean, however, that papers shouldn’t take their respective DA’s to task when they’re brazenly out of line. And that’s a difficult thing to do when allowing them to pen their own personal columns or running hyper-supportive editorials about them.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Stop the train I'm leaving

It seems like every time someone tries to resuscitate any segment of New York’s once-booming rail system, there’s some act of legislative incompetence or freak of nature that, metaphorically speaking, seems to derail it. Such appears to be the case with Saratoga County Economic Development Corporation’s lengthy attempts to revive scenic passenger trains from the Spa City to North Creek.

On the outside, the plan seems simple. Consolidate an already-existing 54-mile stretch of rail, pump in some federal dollars and pretty soon packs of cognac-sipping skiers will be jumping aboard 60s-era diesel trains in Saratoga Springs for a quick ride up to the trails at Gore Mountain.

Warren County took the first plunge back in 1999, successfully running a train south from North Creek down an 8-mile stretch of track to the small hamlet of Riparious. Then last week, the Upper Hudson River Railroad ran its first train to Stony Creek, which is about 28 miles further south or about half the distance between Gore and Saratoga Springs

But nearly a decade after late-Congressman Gerald Solomon proposed the idea of a two-county scenic rail line, the Saratoga connection continues to falter for one reason or another. The most recent snag has left a paltry 300-foot segment of the proposed trail route quite literally hanging in mid-air.

As many might recall, a sudden down pour in May lead to the breach of what was widely reported as a beaver dam, causing more than $100,000 worth of damage to roads in the town of Greenfield. But it turned out to be the 16-mile segment of rail bed purchased by the town of Corinth last winter that was responsible for holding back the water –although some officials maintain the beavers were responsible for plugging culverts that would have otherwise drained the situation.

Now, as both the Times Union and Daily Gazette have reported, the segment of tracks hangs uselessly in the air and requires untold amounts of repair. Canadian-Pacific apparently has a one-year deal with the town to maintain the tracks, but Corinth officials haven’t been able to contact them for one reason or another. And chances are pretty good that neither side is in any rush to discuss the washed-out rail bed.

It’s highly unlikely that any of the private or public lands affected by the ruptured bed had flood insurance, meaning most if not all of the losses suffered went uninsured. This means whichever entity fesses up to the responsibility of maintaining the tracks could very well end up in lengthy litigation with anyone of the many who sustained damage from the cascading rainwater.

Given this quandary, the Saratoga-Gore rail line is likely to languish as either an afterthought or in litigation of some kind, an unfortunate circumstance given the modest success Warren County has experienced with their segment of the railroad.

Such trains are quite the boon for small rural towns struggling to maintain themselves in a state nearly devoid of industry. This isn’t even considering the planned $200 million ski bowl expansion at Gore, which proposes to bring a gondola within walking distance of the North Creek train station. That could turn out to be a tourism gold mine for any of the municipalities located along the paltry 26 miles of rail remaining between the city and the slopes.

But without someone cracking the whip, these projects seem to move a pace that’s lethargic by even glacial standards, simply sucking up taxpayer dollars at every level imaginable but never coming to fruition. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be anyone too interested in picking up the whip, aside from Saratoga County’s Jack Kelley, who’s been trying to crack it for years.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Show me the money

Amid all the praise being heaped by the press upon lawmakers –namely state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno –and Advanced Micro Devices, it’s pretty easy to let another starker headline slip by.

And after weeks of bold-faced headlines such as “chip plant will usher county into brave new world” and “AMD chip plant is a go,” a wire story published by the Post Star last week gives quite the opposite impression.

Simply put, the beast has awoken and isn’t that thrilled about the competition getting, well, more competitive. Intel is waging an aggressive campaign to cut a swath out of AMD’s business by under-selling all of their chips.

Basically, the corporate heads at Intel realize they’ve got a new chip coming out next month, so the best thing to do is clear the decks of all the older models and in the process, give AMD a nice little knife to the side. So far, it appears to be working out pretty well.

While all chip makers typically loose some earning during the lazy hazy days of summer, AMD announced that its profit returns dropped by 9 percent in the second quarter, which is more than twice the normal decrease in revenue. Consequently, AMD’s stock dipped 51 cents, or 2.14 percent in Friday afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

While the cause of this drop is still up for speculation, there is one thing clear: Intel has dominated the chip market for notebooks and doesn’t appear to be letting up anytime soon. AMD, on the other hand, has aimed their product more at desktop models of computer, the market for which has declined precipitously in recent years.

What does this all mean for Saratoga County? Well, before there’s a shovel in the ground –and even after there is –don’t count the chips until the first processor rolls out of the $3.2 billion plant. As one blogger has recently opined, just because Hollywood Joe and the Legislature are pegging AMD’s plant as the next big thing, there’s no guarantee it will actually bear the fruits they have drooled over for so many months.

There are plenty of examples both recently and throughout history where potential businesses petered out long before they ever brought anything to the economy. The result is millions of taxpayer dollars forked over to some business that ultimately cuts and runs, once they feel the brunt of doing business in New York.

It’s been widely published that the estimated 1,200 jobs AMD will bring to the region will end up costing state tax payers about $1 million a piece. Many have said that’s the cost of attracting clean and profitable industry to the region. But the problem comes when half that cost or more gets dumped into a company that ultimately decides it’s not worth their time to create a single one of those jobs.

Even The Saratogian alluded to the tentativeness of the agreement between the state, Saratoga County and AMD, albeit in a back-patting editorial about how the company will revolutionize Malta and the surrounding region. Ironically, in an editorial that ran only two days following the company’s second quarter announcement, the paper cites “possible changes in the economy and the competitive chip business” as being circumstances that could collapse the sweetheart deal.

Only time will tell what fate will befall the 1,350-acre plot of land just a few miles off the Northway. But one thing is for certain, highly publicized promises made during election years aren’t exactly the most believable ones, especially when they’re coming from the mouth of a 77-year-old senator who will more than likely be retired before everything shakes out over in Thomas C. Luther’s forest.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Flirting with danger

There’s nothing like giving Mother Nature a good flirt. All it takes is some concrete, steel rebar and pair of knockers to stare defiantly at the great matron and say with bravado, “there’s no way you’ll ever smite us wench.”

Just ask the engineers down in New Orleans. Or more locally, the engineers at the Hudson River Black River Regulating District, who recently admitted that the Great Sacandaga Lake has crested more than two and a half feet over the spillway at the Conklingville Dam.

For those unfamiliar with dam spillways, the damn regulating district or New York’s largest manmade reservoir, that’s a record water level after more than 75 years of monitoring them. More poignantly, however, that’s nearly six feet above the level when the reservoir is ordinarily considered full.

While having an extremely high water level ruins nearly all recreation on the lake, it doesn’t necessarily bother any of the downstream municipalities, such as Luzerne, Corinth or Glens Falls. Count Fort Edward, Troy and Albany among that group of municipalities quite smitten by the dam retaining much of the water that would have otherwise been cascading down their main streets during last week’s deluge.

Here’s a quick background. After centuries of flooding along the Hudson Valley, state engineers decided to “tame” one of its main tributaries, the Sacandaga River, which flows south through Hamilton County, then west through Fulton, Saratoga and Washington County before spilling into the Hudson.

To accomplish this, the state purchased the rights to 42-square miles of property in Fulton and Saratoga counties, which paved the way for the Conklingville Dam. This earthen embankment with a 400-foot-long concrete spillway blocked off the Sacandaga valley just west of Hadley and created the 29-mile long flood-control reservoir, which now holds back an average of more than 283 billion gallons of water.

That’s right, 283 billion gallons.

As could be expected with the creation of any giant lake came, soon came hordes of recreation seekers, who were already quite accustomed to basking in the Sacandaga. Very quickly, the state found itself in a quandary, owning miles of pristine shoreline for the regulation of the fluctuating reservoir and having more than 4,500 people wanting to buy portions of it for private use.

The solution was to create “lake access permits” so that the state could charge people to use the lake, but still retain rights to any land falling within seven feet of elevation from the lake’s maximum height of 768 feet above sea level. Also cashing in on the creation of the dam was a power company then called E.J. West, which built a hydroelectric facility on the northern bank of the dam nearby its spillway.

Was the history to end here, the story would conclude with a bunch of beach access permit holders being disgruntled over the fact that almost six feet of water has inundated their getaways and pulled away their beach furniture. This is a story in and of itself, simply because they’re paying for beach that is not there and to use a lake that is unsafe to navigate by boat, thanks to flood debris.

The real story, however, is why the lake is so high right now. Ask the regulating district –the state public benefit corporation that controls the reservoir’s height –and they’re likely to cook up some song and dance about how they saved the lower Hudson Valley from become something akin to the Mohawk Valley last week.

In reality, the lake’s regulators have been squirreling away much more water in the reservoir ever since they penned the 40-year agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2002. Simply put, FERC gave the green light for the regulating district to begin an “aggressive use of storage capacity” campaign, so that additional water could be released at times when the Hudson’s levels drop. This allows energy companies to make an extra buck whenever their power generating facilities along the Hudson are languishing, such as during the late Adirondack summers.

Here’s the problem. Both the dam and its spillway are now approaching the century mark in age. It’s not that either structure was constructed shoddy; in fact, the dam stands testament to the ingenuity of New York’s engineers of the early 20th century. But the fact remains, the dam is growing older and might not be able to go another 75 years if ran in the red by its overly exuberant regulators; after all, you don’t take grandpa’s 1927 Ford Model A for a spin on the freeway to see how long it can hold its top speed.

Then in May, it came out that the regulating district is bidding for a $500,000 concrete renovation project near the power plant’s intake valves. The repairs were promulgated by a red flag issued by FERC last year –although both federal and state officials contend the work is “maintenance” related and has nothing to do with safety. Then again, FERC inspectors assessed the damage as needing “immediate repair,” in a letter sent to the district, which described the concrete on two piers as “eroded away” with steel rebar “exposed.”

And the repairs? They were slated for this month. But with more than two feet of water pounding over the spillway, it’s not too likely the regulating district will get around to them anytime soon.

Were there a failure at the dam, the results would be catastrophic, if not apocalyptic. Municipalities such as Hadley and Corinth and Luzerne would be nothing more than an after thought. Flooding would be wide spread for miles around the Capital Region, as the lake drained. Granted, this is a very doomsday approach to the matter, but it’s one that should be heeded as the regulating district pushes the aging dam to its limits and beyond.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Speak of the devil...

...And appear he does. After a pronounced spate of silence, Merlin Development owner Bruce Levinsky has reared his ugly head once again in Saratoga Springs.

For the few who haven’t been disparaged by Levinsky in one way or another, he’s best describe as the city’s prototypical villain, an arrogant, dodgy weasel who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozing an orphanage if he thought there was a dime to be made from it. Among his accolades, the developer has angered, argued with, or sued just about everyone in the city. And if you happen not to be one of those people, just wait. He’ll get around to you.

Once again, Levinsky is set to spar with city officials over the fate of the flailing historic Rip Van Dam Hotel, one of two remaining Victorian-era lodges still remaining on Broadway. With its rolling piazza –the only one of its kind still in existence in the city –the Rip is a miniature example of the majestic hotels that once lined the main street of Saratoga Springs.

Levinsky aimed to change all of that nearly a decade ago, when he set his site on what was then a moderate-priced motel that had fallen into disrepair. In his typical arrogant fashion, the developer drew up grandiose plans to turn the structure into a 100-room Ramada Inn with luxury suites and 350-seat banquet facility; a process that basically meant tearing down the entire building and starting from scratch.

Of course, the city’s Preservation Foundation balked at the idea and told Levinsky to rework his plans around maintaining the building’s historic façade. And so ensued a lengthy court battle in which the developer ultimately lost.

Perhaps to prove that he’s not a sore loser –or just a loser period –Levinsky decided to scuttle his plans for repair work and allow nature to take its course on the Rip Van Dam, a structure that was in dire need of repair even before he bought it. And now, the hotel is about ready to fall into the ground, according to the city’s engineer.

Levinsky claims to have a plan ready to fix the building. He’s also got an “alternate” plan to demolish it, despite the fact that it’s 166 years old and a historic part of the city. Given his history with the building, it doesn’t take much common sense to realize which option he’ll ultimately choose.

But as dastardly as Levinsky is –and he’s about as dastardly as they come –he’s not alone in his scheme to sidestep city preservationists by simply allowing historic structures to rot into the ground.

Take for instance, the two eyesore properties along Phila Street just north of Putnam, which are quite literally the only ones that haven’t been completely renovated. The owners claim they don’t have enough money to fix them up. Yet somehow, they’ve got enough to bulldoze them, clear the debris then build a new, more impressive structure behind them.

Cases like this are depressing, given the craftsmanship that 19th century architect put into these buildings. Unlike the modern travesties that are erected with aluminum framing and faux-brick siding, these structures were forged out of hardwood with granite foundations. Were it not for a handful of slum owners who couldn’t be bothered in funding general upkeep, many of these buildings would be able to stand another century without fail.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, the city is almost powerless to do anything about owners who could care less about things such as the historical importance of buildings and what they mean to a community.

But perhaps it’s in their purview to reinstate tar-and-feathering as a local alternative for developers like Levinsky. Make such a decision based on referendum vote. Or perhaps city leaders could take a cue from the nearby Green Mountain state and simply have a judge send him packing.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

So the fireworks sucked

Spending more doesn’t necessarily guarantee a quality product. Likewise, tens of thousands of people showing up for an event is no assurance that it was worth the time invested to watch it.

Such was the case at the Spa City’s fireworks in Congress Park Tuesday, which were more costly and attracted more people than in previous years. But ask anyone who spent the night packed in the sweltering humidity bowl of the park or the mosquito-ridden slopes behind Canfield Casino and they’ll probably tell you the fireworks sucked.

Granted, the low-level fireworks fired off at the park are often more appealing to a smaller, less-dense crowds. However, most of the display didn’t even clear the park’s treetops –and those segments that did were cloaked by the smoke-filled sky. One chagrined spectator insisted that her “grandmother could put on a better fireworks show” as she left the park with friends.

Although a simple solution would be to move the display out of the park, such a move would draw significant ire from the public, which is quite accustomed to the traditional park display. So instead of moving the display, perhaps city leaders could bolster them a bit by staging a round robin tournament of bare-knuckle boxing in the center of the park, pitting some of the Spa City’s classic political adversaries against one another.

For instance, who wouldn't swing by the park on Independence Day to see of Erin Dreyer duke it out with Ed Moore? Granted, the match up would’ve been much more timely last year, when there was fresh blood between the deputy public safety commissioner and the police chief. But judging by his lawsuit against the city, Moore obviously holds a bit of resentment for the blond bombshell’s buggering of his beat cops. Cuffing them together in the ring with smattering of agitation and a pair of Tasers would be better than hiring Grucci.

Any mention of fireworks must include the lake’s residential blowhard, David Bronner, who could battle it out with the Saratoga Peace Alliance, also known as the Saturday afternoon post office peaceniks. Despite being outnumbered greatly, the rabid former U.S. Army colonel would be a formidable opponent for the docile protesters, especially given his somewhat random vitriolic tantrums he aims at them from time to time.

If Bronner wins his bout against the peace activists, he could end up facing another person he takes great joy in bashing: Public Works Commisioner Tom McTygue. But to spar with the colonel, McTygue would need to first defeat Mayor Valerie Keehan, who arbitrarily snubbed his kid brother from the Planning Board after she took office this year.

Among political junkies, the Mayor’s move was thought to be reprisal against the democratic heavyweight for his support of former Deputy Mayor Hank Kuzynski during the primaries last year. Although neither side has claimed sour grapes, the framework is there for some good pyrotechnics, given a round of good political rhetoric traded between the parties.

More recently, it seems fence-sitting Finance Commissioner Matt McCabe might have a nice opponent in John Kraus, given the public barbs traded between the two over the last few years. As a “tax-rate watchdog,” Kraus wants the city to “hold the line” when it comes to spending. The elusive and enigmatic McCabe seems to think Kraus is off his rocker, which mixed with a liberal amount of caffine might be enough to touch off some fireworks at sundown.

And last but not least, a classic match from the yesteryear of Saratoga Springs: Bruce Levinsky versus the entire city. The pompous head of Merlin Development was once best known for doing pretty much anything he wanted around the city, until he got pimp-slapped by the preservation society several years ago. True, without giving the developer some serious armament, the bout would likely turn into a classic tar-and-feathering. But what a fabulous spectacle it would be.

Inflamed tension among public figures is what often slows down the grinding gears of government and political discourse to its standard glacial pace. So it would be nice if everyone on the sidelines had a show to watch in the mean time. If nothing else, staging the bouts on America's day of independence would give new metaphoric meaning to the fireworks on the Forth.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Wind bagging

George Pataki must think it takes a lot of hot air to dry out a wet situation. That’s because New York’s governor and still-in-the-closet 2008 presidential candidate has virtually blanketed the flood-ravaged Mohawk Valley with so much blustering that it’s a wonder the river itself hasn’t dried up.

For the second time in three days, Pataki again promised aid to the areas dealt a crippling blow during the flood. And for the second time, the governor got back onto a state helicopter and was whisked away amid what could only be termed a three-ring media circus without leaving as much as a penny behind for the residents badly in need.

If you ask Pataki’s people, they’ll tell you $35 million is on its way in so-called immediate state aid –$25 million for $5,000 individual grants for families and small businesses. Of course, these are the same morons that said the Lock 10 dam wasn’t breached last week.

When you ask someone in the know however, they’ll give you a very different story. This funding is meant only for documented losses, which is problematic for many disaster victims, seeing as though many of the documents were also indeed lost in the flood. Not to mention, all of this funding is contingent upon the Legislature’s approval, which isn’t likely to happen anytime this week.

On a symbolic and telling note, the governor’s office decided to stage a whimsical side show at Monday’s media circus, carting a dozen some-odd stranded yachters from Waterford down to the lock near Amsterdam more than 40 miles away. In a true display of showmanship, Pataki affectionately christened them the “Lock 3 Yacht Club” during his press conference, goading reporters into writing cheery sidebars about some of these relatively well-off nautical travelers.

But were Pataki’s people really media savvy, they would have jazzed up the governor’s entrance to the press conference. Instead of the normal entrance, he should have repelled down from the helicopter into a circle of the Albany Conquest cheerleaders with Van Halen pounding from the lock’s PA system. Song suggestion: Right Now. Then, he could have jogged a quick victory “tour” around the lock, giving all the social and legislative dignitaries high fives after doing a few fist pumps.

In the end, many of the media parihas fell for it anyway –hook line and sinker. The Times Union again rehashed the harrying accounts of the how people are roughing it in Waterford. And the story of the Lock 3 Yacht Club was enough to compel a kid-voiced “bureau chief” from Public Radio’s WAMC to also use it as a side bar to Pataki’s wind bagging.

Who could blame them for taking the easy kill, especially seeing as though the whole event was billed as Pataki’s tour of the flood damaged area of Lock 10. And after all, St. Johnsville is a troublesome 30-mile journey down the state Thruway from the lock.

There’s no doubt the governor is using this tragic event to add a little zip to his springboard for a run at the presidency, which is up for grabs in two short years. No doubt, his well-published criticism of President Bush for initially declaring a federal disaster in only eight of 13 counties was a thinly veiled appeal to the fickle among the state’s moderates who probably don’t realize the dire situation facing the region thanks to this trite electioneering.

So life will continue without an ounce of aid in the festering disease pit that was once just one of the many impoverished areas of the upstate region. Residents will continue to tear down their homes during the Independence Day fireworks and if they’ve got a dime to their names, maybe they’ll have a stiff cocktail or four come sundown. After all, the only job that many of them have to go back to after the holiday is throwing out more of their sewage-soaked personal belongings.

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