Hundreds of people packed into Albany’s Kiernan Plaza on Jan. 1 as Judge Margaret Walsh swore in Kathy Sheehan during an inauguration ceremony that was attended by many state and local dignitaries. She is only Albany’s fourth mayor in 72 years, and the first woman to ever hold the office.
“On this bitter, bitter cold day in this historic building among this distinguished crowd of dignitaries, community leaders, families, friends and fellow citizens, I am both honored and humbled to place myself at your service as the 75th mayor of our great city,” Sheehan said as she opened her inaugural address.
Sheehan earned 83 percent of the vote during November’s election after beating Corey Ellis in a September Democratic primary. She won the party endorsement after Mayor Gerald Jennings decided not to seek another term, ending his 20-year tenure as the mayor of New York’s capital city.
“Much has been said about the fact that I am the first woman mayor of Albany in its 328-year history,” Sheehan said during an address that touched on campaign promises of equality and inclusion in the city’s management. “I didn’t shatter this glass ceiling by myself, it was chiseled away at by women who came before me and by those who believe that diversity in government leads to better government.”
The historic nature of the event was evident among the crowd that sat below the vaulted ceilings and ornamented architecture of Kiernan Plaza, a building that once stood as the gateway into the city when it served as the railroad station.
“I’m here to celebrate the first woman mayor of Albany,” said Meredith Butler, a 30-year resident of the city. “It’s the first time in years there were people running for office I liked and that actually got elected. It’s a new day.”
Congressman Paul Tonko (D- NY 20th District) emceed the event that also saw the swearing in of Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, Chief City Auditor Leif Engstrom, and City Treasurer Darius Shahinfar. McLaughlin led members of the Common Council in the swearing in for their seats.
Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy referred to his experience as mayor of Rochester during his keynote address: “Being a mayor is a special job. You are at the grassroots level. The health of our cities defines the health of our nation. Albany could not be better served.”
The building could not be better served that day either, according to local artist and Albany resident Samson Contompasis. “This is a really important day,” he said before the inauguration began as he stood in the former rail station’s concourse. “Plus I’ll take every chance to be inside this building.”
Kiernan Plaza lost its gateway role when the original Rensselaer Amtrak station opened in 1968, diverting passenger rail service to the other side of the river. Kiernan Plaza was completed in 1900 during the railroad boom and was originally called Union Station. The building was converted for office use in 1986 by Norstar Bankcorp Inc, and today wears the name of the former bank president, Peter Kiernan.
The building has been vacant since 2009, but plans are under way to make use of the building again. The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering now owns the building and has secured three new tenants: The site will house the corporate headquarters of the credit union SEFCU and the national engineering firm CHA, as well as a regional office of the Arkansas-based networking firm Windstream Communications. The building also has a new moniker, the Smart Cities Technology Innovation Center, or SCiTI (pronounced “city”). The nanotech college plans on using the building to attract companies that focus on making cities run more efficiently and effectively.
Sheehan’s inauguration address reflected the plight of Union Station and other once-forgotten Albany buildings as she acknowledged some of the current challenges that face her new administration.
“Vacant, blighted and abandoned buildings mar far too many of our once vibrant, diverse, and historic neighborhoods,” she said at one point during her speech. “But we also have tremendous opportunity. New mixed-use residential development offers the promise of new jobs and a growing tax base.”
Sheehan also touched on the financial problems Albany will face in the near future. “As we begin 2014, our structural deficit stands at nearly 16 million dollars, and our rainy day fund will be depleted by the end of the year,” she said. “One in four of our residents lives at or below the poverty level, and many more struggle to support their families. And property taxes are so high that many families and businesses simply cannot choose to be here.”
This was a topic that newly-sworn-in auditor Engstrom also brought up during the course of his speech, which offered a warning of challenging things to come. “Our city will still face infrastructure needs greater than our tax base can support,” he said.
Outgoing Mayor Jennings attended the event and expressed his confidence that Sheehan’s team will be able to face the challenges to both her administration and the city. When asked about his own future plans, he said, “I ‘m going to chill out for a while.”