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Special Section: Inside Saratoga

 

PHOTO: Chris Shields

New Mayor, New city?

Metroland sits down with Valerie Keehn on the eve of her first August as chief executive of Saratoga Springs

Interview by David King

What 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 their experiences.

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 direction?

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 season?

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 long term?

The city is starting to put together a downtown pedestrian traffic plan that will try to curtail some of those safety issues.

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 Street?

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 city.

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 as well.

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 positive thing.

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 to them.

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 being ignored?

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 like Beekman?

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 Race Course
saratoga shots BY MARTIN BENJAMIN

Open daily through Sept. 4, except Tuesdays

Location 267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $5 clubhouse; children under 12 free; seats are $6 and $7, respectively

Parking $10 per car at the trackside and $5 across the street at the Oklahoma Training Track. General parking is free.

Racing Nine or 10 races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time is at 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 26, when itís at 12:30 PM).

Major 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).


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