Section: Inside Saratoga
Mayor, New city?
sits down with Valerie Keehn on the eve of her first August
as chief executive of Saratoga Springs
by David King
is most challenging about being mayor during track season?
Iím just in the midst of this season. What Iím finding to
be most challenging is juggling all of the events Iíve been
invited to attend, figuring out my evening schedule. There
are at least one or two events every week, and I started getting
invitations to go in the spring. People started sending save-the-date
cards, and the events started happening. This season, events
kicked off in April, and itís been, since then, fund-raisers
and galas and kickoffs and things like that. Just anything
and everything you can possibly imagine!
What is the best part of being mayor during the season?
Iím finding itís that visitors come into the city and have
a great experience in Saratoga. The city looks great. Itís
a beautiful place to be. People are friendly here, and welcoming.
There are lots of great shops and restaurants. Itís all around
just a great place to visit. People are very positive about
Do you go to the races?
Our family tries to go two or three times a year. If we have
visitors who want to see the races we go more often.
Do you think you might have better seats this year?
Iíve decided not to use the mayorís box this year. Iím on
an ad hoc committee, and did not want there to be a sense
I was taking something from [New York Racing Association]
that might influence me. Itís not like theyíd be giving me
something any other mayor hasnít had. It was just easy for
me to give [the box seats] to extra charities this year. Each
commissioner gets a certain number of days, then the rest
are given to charities that historically have asked for and
gotten the mayorís box for benefits. This year, we offered
it to people in City Hall who might not have had the box,
so weíve spread it a around a little bit more.
Have you had a chance to go to the Saratoga Performing Arts
Center this summer?
We went to the ballet; it was wonderful! I plan on going to
the orchestraówe try to go to that every year. I havenít been
to any concerts yet. Maybe we will do that as well. My son
actually received for graduation, from his girlfriend, tickets
to Crosby, Stills and Nash. I would love to go too, myself!
But we try to go to at least one concert, the ballet and one
night at the orchestra each year. We love SPAC!
Are you hearing that things at SPAC are headed in the right
I think itís great [that] their financial statement is looking
really positive for the first time in a long time. I have
heard concerns from residents that the number of ballet days
was reduced, and I am certainly very concerned about that.
I hope that doesnít continue to be the pattern with regard
to the ballet. I am going to continue to quietly encourage
SPAC to get a city representative on the board, or somehow
work some sort of city person into what goes on at SPAC.
What is the most important issue facing the city during track
As we come into this really busy season, I and a lot of other
people are really mindful of safety and traffic. It used to
be that Saratoga was the summer place to be, and we geared
up for the season and realized traffic was going to be really
bad for the track season. People accommodated their life to
when the track let out. But now Saratoga is a busy place year
round, and traffic is busy all the time, so I think people
in Saratoga need to be really diligent about watching for
pedestrians, being safe drivers, obeying traffic rules, stopping
at stop signs when people are waiting to cross the streets.
I am very mindful of the drastic increase in traffic and decrease
in safety in Saratoga.
Is this an issue the city is looking at dealing with in the
The city is starting to put together a downtown pedestrian
traffic plan that will try to curtail some of those safety
How close is Saratoga to your ideal version of the city?
I love living in Saratoga. This is my childrenís hometown
and in my mind, itís not quiteóbut almostóa perfect place
to live. I think if we get too far on one end of the boom
of development weíre going to be close to moving in an opposite
direction to what people love about Saratoga. Iíve certainly
heard from the community that we ought to be more pedestrian-
and bicycle-friendly. We ought to be taking the lead on accommodating
alternate forms of transportation, and I think Saratoga is
ready to take the lead on that front. Iíd like to see more
of that. I want to have a long-term vision for growth and
development in the city, and we have to partner with developers
to make vision a reality.
Do you think that is attainable in the next few years?
I think itís attainable, but we have to be really diligent
about developing those kinds of partnerships. I think it takes
a while to have a comfortable level, a working relationship
with private and public entities. But Iím certainly willing
to try and do that. But, you know, what I heard from the public
was, ďThe developers are running the show,Ē and I would like
to change that around a little bit and have the community
more involved in having a voice in what kind of development
happens in the city.
Has the city learned anything from whatís happening on Beekman
I feel itís been a really positive thing. I think that itís
shown there can be retail and art galleries off of Broadway
that donít detract from the downtown area but just move people
flowing through Saratoga. I think we can do more of that in
a very planned, visionary way that does not pull people away
from Broadway but brings them through different parts of the
What sort of feedback are you getting now that youíve been
in office for a while?
I think that the city is still contemplating and chewing on
what happened during the elections. For the most part, Iíve
heard very positive things. On the other hand, there will
always be people who are going to disagree with your policies
and your basic approach. Iíve heard from some of those people
From my own perspective, you know, I am not an entrenched
politician, and I live in the city just like everyone else.
I want my children to have a great place to live and a place
to raise their own families if they want to stay in Saratoga.
I want it to be the best place it possibly can be. I want
to engage people out there who have the same idea. So Iím
trying to bring people into the community. Iím bringing them
onto boards and committees. The city is not the same city
that it was 20 years ago, not the same city it was 10 years
ago, and I think the city needs to change its government.
That needs to change along with the city. Thatís why I formed
the most recent charter commission: to really take a look
at how our city represents our citizens.
Can you talk about how you became involved and how other people
could get more involved in the process?
Iíve been involved in the Democratic Party. But also, you
know, I just feel that if youíre the kind of person who has
a sense of responsibility and is kind of willing to put yourself
out there and take some risks, then people have a responsibility
[to do that]. Iíve always been the kind of person who wasnít
afraid to make some waves, to get some things done that I
felt were the right things. I think that having a more representative
form of government, where you have a regular city council,
will encourage regular citizens to get more involved. To have
a commissioner running a department just hinders regular folks
from running for office, because maybe they donít feel comfortable
with finance. Maybe they say, ďI donít have an idea how to
run public safety.Ē ďI donít know much about accounting and
accounts and assessment.Ē So I think having a more typical
form of government will encourage regular folks to get involved
in local government, and whenever you can do that, it is a
Have you seen a lot of public support for these changes?
Weíve been here for 17 years and heard the talk for 17 years,
and it was ongoing for many more years before that. Michael
Lenz formed his own charter commission just at the tail-end
of his tenure, so that commission never actually got off the
ground. I donít think they had one meeting. Even before that,
there was a citizensí group that, in fact, started the whole
thing by starting a petition for a more representative form
of government: city council members, things like that. I want
to be responsive to the citizens of our city. Theyíve got
hundreds of signatures. Itís incumbent upon me to pay attention
Are there any gems in the city you think deserve more attention?
Absolutely. I think that the visitorsí center has a great
wealth of activity and things people can do in the city. They
have tours and interactive activities people can get involved
with. But just some museums we have in the city I think probably
are not frequented as much as they should be by people who
live here. We have the bottle museum, the car museum, the
racing museum, the dance museum, the childrenís museum.
I think if people took a day or weekend to go to the museums
we have in the area, they would be amazed. Weíve got the military
museum. Theyíve really done a marvelous job over there. I
encourage people to go there. We have art galleries. You know,
everybody knows about the art center, but now weíve got two
or three galleries on Beekman Street and some on Legion Street.
Is there some sort of untold story inside Saratoga that is
I think that 9/11 probably shook up the whole country, certainly
New York state, in a pretty heavy way. I think for people
in New York City and the surrounding area it was a wake-up
call for a lot of them to think about how they were living
their lives, what their priorities were. And that incident
brought people from the city up to the northern part of New
York state. We are reaping the benefits of that, and feeling
the difficulties of that experience as well. I think that
certainly people who are native to Saratoga Springs are especially
mindful of that and how the city has changed, and how are
we going to balance bringing in and accommodating new people
and also the people that have lived here for many generations.
I talked to a lot of people who grew up here and whose parents
grew up here, and many of them sort of lament the old Saratogaónot
that I want to stop change or prevent change, but Iím very
interested in hearing from those people what made Saratoga
great, in their minds, in the í60s or í70s when they were
kids growing up or raising their children. You know, a lot
of people say you can walk the streets and not recognize one
person that lives in your community, whereas before it was
a city that had that small-town feel. You could stand on the
corner and talk to four or five people you knew. Itís kind
of losing that small-town charm. How do we maintain that and
continue to have a great place to raise our kids, and grow
and welcome people at the same time?
Do you think part of that might involve creating more districts
Thatís one thing Beekman Street shows: It has its own little
community. They are trying to kind of harness the west-side
identity, and theyíre doing a very good job of that. They
want to bring back the street fairs and the celebrations the
west side is historically famous for. I think pockets of those
little mini-neighborhoods and centers of the community are
a really positive thing. It gets people out. I hear a lot
people say, ĎBroadway is so busy downtown, too busy. I donít
even go down there.í We donít want to have that happen. We
want to make downtown an area amenable to people. We want
them coming down and able to find a place to park, find a
place to shop, not feeling the traffic is so bad they take
their lives in their own hands when they walk across Broadway.
But if you can have that same sense on a very much smaller
scale in different pockets of the city, then you have done
a good thing, youíve got that sense of community, that identity.
On a lighter note, have you been to Reel Meals and a Movie?
We just went over the weekend. We took our kids to An Inconvenient
Truth. It was a great experience.
I just saw that. Walked outside and said, ďOh, thatís why
itís so hot!Ē
Yeah, it makes you think. . . . There is so much going on
in the world that we canít close our eyes to anymore. I just
recently went back to my hometown of Casper, Wyoming. It is
twice the size of Saratoga Springs. They had two downtown
movie theaters, the Rialto and the America Theater. Then,
like most communities in America, malls sprang up on the outskirts
of town, and suddenly there are eight theaters outside of
town, and everyone had to drive there to go to the theaters,
and those two [older] theaters shut down.
When I went back two weeks ago, both of the theaters have
been refurbished and revitalized. They were beautiful. One
had the balcony, and it was just great. There were a lot of
people in the theater. Casper is trying to revitalize their
downtown as well, and has done a lot of things Saratoga is
thinking about doing in regard to how they move traffic through
the downtown areas.
Is there a place in the Capital Region you enjoy visiting
when you arenít so busy?
Well, we used to go to the Adirondacks when we had time, and
it seems like every year we try to go to the New York State
Museum, but sometimes I feel like Saratoga is so great, why
would you want to go too far away from here, when staying
here is such an enjoyable experience? My husband and I said
when our children were younger we could hardly wait ítil our
children were grown so we could enjoy all the great things
Saratoga has to offer.
saratoga shots BY MARTIN BENJAMIN
daily through Sept. 4, except Tuesdays
267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.
$3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse; children under 12 free; seats
are $6 and $7, respectively
$10 per car at the trackside and $5 across the street at the
Oklahoma Training Track. General parking is free.
Nine or 10 races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.
Race Post Time is at 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 26,
when itís at 12:30 PM).
Stakes Races The Diana Handicap (July 29); the Jim Dandy
(July 29); the Whitney Handicap (Aug. 5); the Sword Dancer
Invitational (Aug. 12); the Alabama Stakes (Aug. 19); the
Travers Stakes (Aug. 26); the Woodward (Sept. 2).