City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
Two-term Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly has announced that she will not seek re-election in November 2021 for a third term.
"Serving the City of Saratoga Springs as its Mayor is a profound experience. Having been raised in Saratoga Springs and nurtured by its community and culture, serving as Mayor has been a once in a lifetime chance to contribute to the City’s future. I have done so with one objective -- to give my very best to the City of Saratoga Springs,” Kelly said in a statement.
All five City Council seats – including mayor – are up for vote in November 2021. Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan announced in November that she will not seek re-election.
ALBANY — With the vaccination process underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced this week that COVID-19 Vaccines will be provided to New Yorkers free of charge.
“In this state you do not pay for vaccinations, period. That is not true in other parts of the country,” Cuomo said.
The vaccination process is currently in Phase I – which includes vaccinating priority healthcare workers, and nursing home and congregate care residents and workers. Phase II – which includes essential workers and priority general public - is anticipated to begin in late January.
A new state website has been created regarding the vaccines and may be viewed at: covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
As COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations continue to climb, the governor said whether the state will once again need to go to “Pause” mode is up to the behavior of residents through the holiday season.
“The (potential) shutdown is in their hands, New Yorkers: celebrate smart, healthy holidays, hospital management – we don’t shut down,” Cuomo said.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — This was the original plan: Santa and the elves, up on the big stage, in a theater filled with people. Then came the pandemic - What to do, What to do?
Santa’s head elf had an idea. It would take the convincing of the whole North Pole, but what if this year’s merriment would continue holiday tradition by adopting the modern tools of technology? All seems virtually fine with going virtual - until a conflict over the annual naughty and nice list threatens to eradicate the entire gift-sharing season. Can Santa save Christmas?
The story is told in a brand new 40-minute production called “The Nice List,” offered free during the month of December on YouTube, for family holiday enjoyment.
“After the pandemic happened, the story evolved to be about Santa and the elves having to work by Zoom or video conferences,” says Elliott Masie, who along with wife Cathy operate Masie Productions – a boutique company that creates or co-produce shows that combines theater, engagement, technology and learning. They have been involved in 29 shows that have been on Broadway. The Saratoga Springs couple are producers of the new family video musical.
“Alan Muraoka, who has played Alan on Sesame Street for I think 20 years, is the director. He came to Cathy and me, along with our friend Telly Leung, who has been Aladdin on Broadway, and said: Hey, we’ve got this great show and maybe we can film it on green screen for people at home,” Masie says. “After that, one thing led to another. We found seven wonderful actors - filming themselves locally on their PC’s or their phone. The actors and musicians all worked virtually, and it was all put together. Two of our actors found the audio quality of their apartments were horrible, but their closets were excellent!”
Muraoka directed the production which was written by Phoebe Kreutz. Gary Adler – who served as the music director/arranger for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular – was in charge of the music, and Michael Mindlin the choreography.
“Everybody just had a blast. We have James (James Monroe Iglehart AKA Santa) – who’s the Tony Award winning Genie in ‘Aladdin,’ Telly Leung and some of the people from (the Tony Award-winning musical) Avenue Q, and Sesame Street in there. Cathy and I are just delighted, it’s one of the most fun things we’ve done as producers,” Masie says.
“You know every day I probably get 12 invitations to see something where you pay online. I said: Let’s not do that, let’s just give it away. It was something we did in eight weeks with about $65,000. We were able to pay actors and it’s out there for people around the world to watching it for free,” Masie says.
“The point that’s interesting to me is watching the elves and Santa learn how to work virtually. Right now people are navigating the world and working remotely, so in some ways it’s a story about this moment – video conferencing and the like,” Masie says. “We think this is the right story to do right now. And the world needs a little uplift. Our only objective is that a lot of people see it.”
To watch “The Nice List: an original holiday family musical,” and learn more about the cast, crew and people involved, go to: www.nicelistmusical.com.
BALLSTON SPA — The Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care, a 257-bed facility formerly operated by the county as Maplewood Manor, is anticipated to close early in the new year.
The state Department of Health approved a plan submitted by the leadership of Saratoga Center for Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care to close, said DOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.
“According to the approved plan, all of the residents will be relocated to other long term care facilities as soon as possible. DOH will monitor the facility as closure activities commence to help minimize the impact of this closing on the community, and to make sure every resident is relocated to an appropriate level of care,” Hammond said, in a prepared statement.
After learning of the potential closure, Ballston Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker, dated Dec. 11, requesting the nursing home closure “be extended appropriately, in consideration of the current pandemic.”
Walsh called the deadline for closure, which is Feb. 15, 2021, a challenging one, even under the best of circumstances.
“With the pandemic, this type of major transition could be unsafe for residents or worse yet, deadly,” Walsh wrote. “Transferring these residents to facilities within the required 50-mile radius necessitates that they will be entering facilities with active COVID cases.”
The Saratoga facility has thus far reported no COVID-19 positive resident cases.
“Given the recent surge in cases in Saratoga and nearby counties, many facilities are not accepting new admissions. This may result in residents having to relocate far from home and far from family supports. I do not question the business judgment of the owners and operators of this facility to make the business decision to close. However, I remain very concerned about the health, safety and well-being of these vulnerable residents,” said Walsh, reporting that 87 residents will be required to relocate. “Allowing sufficient time for residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and for the holiday surge in cases to dissipate, would be a reasonable accommodation,” she added.
The Saratoga Center for Rehab & Skilled Nursing Care, is located at 149 Ballston Ave. According to the DOH, the center will continue operations until the last resident is “placed in the most appropriate level of care,” that a full range of appropriate services for all patients/residents must be provided throughout the entire closure process, and that the closure plan must include provisions for the maintenance, storage and safekeeping of patient/resident medical records.
BALLSTON SPA — In March, the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors authorized $1 million to be directed to battling the spread of COVID-19. There were 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saratoga County at the time.
In May, the Board authorized Saratoga County Administrator Spencer Hellwig to hire as many as 50 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour – the costs to be paid from the appropriated $1 million fund.
Seven months later, with the number of cases nearing a total of 4,000 in Saratoga County, $800,000 of that $1 million has remained unused, and only 23 Contact Tracers employed.
“We authorized 50 Contact Tracers. In November it came to my understanding that we only had 23 Contact Tracers,” says Tara Gaston, one of two city supervisors who represent Saratoga Springs at the county level. “Whether anyone in leadership knew about it, I don’t know, but that’s when I learned we had only hired 23. Before that, it hadn’t been discussed. And it was about this same time that we determined that New York State - which had promised us to be able to use their Contact Tracers – was going to limit our access. So, it became an even larger concern,” she says.
“I do think mistakes have been made - some at the individual level, and some as a result of the Board of Supervisors not setting this forth as a priority,” Gaston says. “When the request was made for 50 Contact Tracers, we were under the impression that was sufficient, and we were also under the impression that if it was insufficient someone would come and tell us.” There are 21 municipalities represented by 23 supervisors from all across Saratoga seated at the county board. “We have not done what we should have done. I should have done better. We all should have done better.”
On Dec. 15, Gaston introduced a measure to allow the hire of 25 additional Contact Tracers – which would bring the allowable number of hires up to 75 in all – as well as 5 Supervising Contact Tracers. That number of 75 would bring the number of county Contact Tracers in line with the Johns Hopkins standard of about 30 Tracers per 100,000 people, as well as allow a slight buffer zone should any workers step down.
A second measure she introduced targets $100,000 of the $800,000 remaining in COVID county funds for the purchase of PPE and masks for distribution in the community.
The $100,000 PPE allotment is broken down this way: $75,000 targeted for masks to be distributed to the general public in the community; $25,000 specifically set aside for any form of PPE – masks, gowns, gloves, or face shields – targeting the local population at higher risk like EMS workers, police officers, and “communities of lower economic power,” Gaston says, such as those who are unhoused.
Saratoga Springs City Supervisor Matt Veitch expressed his support for both resolutions. The county Board subsequently approved both measures.
After spiking in the spring, local infection rates subsequently were reduced and remained below 1 % through most of the summer. The 7-day rolling average COVID-19 positive infection rate doubled from 0.6% on Oct. 1 to 1.2% on Nov. 1 in Saratoga County. From Nov. 1 to Dec. 1, it more than tripled to 3.8%, and has subsequently continued to rise – by mid-December climbing to near 6%, the highest 7-day average rate registered in Saratoga County since April.
Contact tracing helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 by rapidly interviewing positive patients, identifying and alerting their close contacts to prevent the spread of the infection to others.
Here’s how it is designed to work: When a person tests positive, a COVID Contact Tracer works with the person to identify and reach out via phone and text to anyone they’ve been in contact with while infectious to trace and contain the spread of the virus. People who have come in close contact with someone who is positive are then asked to stay home and limit their contact with others. The Tracer will also connect persons infected with support and resources they may need through quarantine, such as help getting groceries or household supplies, child care, medical care or supplies.
Saratoga County’s contact tracing program operates 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. This week’s vote by the Board authorizes the additional hiring of up to 25 Contact Tracers at the rate of $25 per hour, and up to five Supervising Contact Tracers at a rate of compensation of $30 per hour.
On Nov. 19, the county’s Department of Public Health posted a flyer indicating it was seeking individuals interested in working as Contact Tracers. A subsequent notice, posted Dec. 11, indicated a large number of applications had been received and that no new applications were being accepted. It is unclear whether the Board’s actions of Dec. 15 would trigger a new “Contact Tracers Wanted” request. The Dec. 11 post informs: Please check back on Dec. 18 for an update. The Saratoga County website may be found at: saratogacountyny.gov.
WILTON — Aldi, which counts 2,000 stores across 36 states, opens its newest store in Wilton this week. Located just off Lowe’s Drive, the grocer will be open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
Headquartered in Illinois, Aldi has more than 2,000 stores across 36 states, employs over 25,000 people and has grown steadily since opening its first US store in Iowa in 1976. The company says its national expansion is part of its plan to become the third-largest U.S. grocery retailer by store count by the end of 2022.
“We are dedicated to providing the communities we serve the best groceries at the lowest-possible prices, and we look forward to introducing Saratoga Springs to their new neighborhood grocery store,” said Chris Daniels, South Windsor division vice president for ALDI, in a statement.
Regionally, Aldi sites stores in Queensbury, Ballston Spa, Clifton Park and Glenville, according to the company’s store locator. The first store opened in 1961 in Germany.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — With the swift shearing of a green ceremonial ribbon, the long awaited City Center parking facility – and the 600-plus parking spaces it brings to downtown Saratoga Springs – was unveiled this week and announced itself open for business.
Through the end of this calendar year, the first four hours of parking is free of charge. Parking rates for 2021 will be free for the first hour of parking, and $1 per hour after that first free hour, with a $15 cap charge in the 12 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. period.
The $16 million multi-floor structure features secure covered parking for over 620 vehicles, four electric car charging stations, two green spaces, a pair of elevators and an open, flat, roof top area that can be used for parking and for convention related events.
A glass-enclosed pedestrian walkway extends over Maple Avenue, connecting the parking structure with the City Center complex.
The structure was unveiled Nov. 10 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by regional business and economic leaders and city officials. Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly city councilmember Anthony “Skip” Scirocco addressed the crowd.
“It is so exciting to bring this needed project to fruition, and to be part of the City Center’s continued growth, but the credit for this project also belongs to many current and former city council members, City Center Authority members, City Center employees, and members of the business community,” said Ryan McMahon, executive director of the Saratoga Springs City Center.
The City Center, located at the north end of Broadway, opened in 1984 and has served as host to corporations, New York State Associations, trade groups and northeast regional organizations, gate shows, fundraising galas and social events. The conference complex offers a total of 58,000 square feet of conference space when partnered with the adjoining 242 room Saratoga Hilton Hotel.
The development of an adjoining parking structure has been debated, often vehemently, for more than a decade and the project has undergone a multitude of suggested variations.
Community concerns targeted the facility’s size, its design, and its location atop prime city-owned land. Conversely, a large contingent of business owners have long advocated for its creation, reasoning that the additional parking spaces would increase the economic vitality for downtown retail shops and restaurant. And City Center officials have discussed the need of easy parking for potential clients to compete in a marketplace with other regional centers vying for convention business.
“You always want to improve your game,” Tom Roohan, chairman of the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, told reporters at Tuesday’s ceremony. “In December 2013 we started this process, and I think we ended up with a great project with more than 600 parking spots, a well-lit, safe and secure parking facility that will help encourage companies to come into town.” During evening hours, a security guard will be on premise to offer an added layer of safety. A limited number of yearly parking passes are available for purchase from the Saratoga Springs City Center.
The structure, which stands one block east of Broadway, was developed atop a surface lot that saw the elimination of 188 previously free parking spaces. For the time being, parking continues to be free of charge in most of the other existing public parking areas downtown, as well as on city streets.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — For the second time in three years, the results of a citizen-led City Charter referendum that would change the way Saratoga Springs is governed will not be officially determined until the absentee ballots are counted.
The last time a citizen-led City Charter referendum proposed change, in 2017, the measure was defeated by a razor-thin margin of 4,458 - 4,448. This year, that Election Day margin of voters opposing the change is larger, but so too are the number of absentee ballots as well as the number of votes overall.
The 2020 tally stands at 6,324- 5,186 against the change, a difference of 1,138 votes. There were 4,372 absentee ballots issued. Outstanding absentee ballots must be postmarked on or prior to Election Day, and may be received until Tuesday, when officials at the Saratoga County Board of Elections plan to open and count them.
“We’re cautiously optimistic. We’re still thinking we can pull through on this,” said Ron Kim, a co-chair of Common Sense Saratoga, a group advocating for change.
The 2017 referendum garnered 8,906 total votes. This year’s proposition may top 15,000 if all absentee ballots are returned with a vote on the charter amendment. There are 18,654 registered voters in Saratoga Springs.
Saratoga Springs current “Commission” form of governing is the only form of governing the city has known since its incorporation as a city more than a century ago. It features five council members – one mayor, plus four commissioners heading the departments of Public Safety, Public Works, Finance, and Accounts, respectively. Each council member is responsible for administering their own department as well as serving as legislators. In this council of five, each of whom is elected to two-year terms, decisions are made by majority rule.
The “Council-Manager” proposition calls for replacing that “Commission” form in favor of one that includes a mayor – elected by the voters of the city at large, and six members elected from city wards by the voters of those specific wards. Those six wards are to be comprised of equal voting population. That city council of seven would then appoint, set the salary for, and hire a City Manager. The idea is that residents would be represented through the ward system, and the manager held to accountability via the city council.
Officials at the county Board of Elections in Ballston Spa anticipate the count of absentee ballots to begin Tuesday, Nov. 10. The gatherings are open to the public and generally staged in a room at the county Board of Elections offices.
BALLSTON SPA — Dr. Daniel Kuhles, the county’s new Commissioner of Public Health, held a live forum Dec. 4, when he provided a regional and state overview related to COVID-19 strategies, as well as an update of the pending federal vaccination program.
Kuhles, a resident of Saratoga Springs and a medical doctor, was appointed to the newly created Commissioner position in November following a four-month-long search for candidates by the county Board of Supervisors. The position carries a base salary of $132,446 and a term of six years. Job responsibilities include directing, managing and regulating the Department’s delivery of public health services throughout Saratoga County.
The 53-minute forum, first broadcast live on Dec. 4, may be viewed at the Saratoga County Public Health Services Facebook page.
Infection percentage rates in Saratoga County have doubled each month since August, and topped 4% this week on a rolling 7-day average, marking the highest infection rate since mid-May.
“The overall trend is going upwards in a direction we do not want to see it go,” Kuhles says.
Regional hospitalization rates due to COVID-19 – one of the biggest criteria the state says it now will use to determine potential shutdown strategies - was at an all-time high this week, with over 220 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the eight-county Capital Region designation, of which Saratoga County is a part.
During his presser Dec. 7, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who warned of a potential “dark time” in January if public health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and attention to detail during even small gatherings are not followed. The result of gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday will become evident Dec. 15-20, he said, followed by a potential surge if additional gatherings are held during the December holidays.
“Potentially, a surge upon a surge,” Fauci said. “If those things happen and we don’t mitigate well, we don’t listen to the public health measures we need to follow, we can start to see things really get bad in the middle of January…the middle of January could be a really dark time for us.”
Regarding vaccinations, Fauci said he anticipated a substantial number of health care providers and people in nursing homes will begin receiving vaccinations later this month, with essential workers and those at high-risk due to health issues having the ability to be vaccinated in the early months of 2021.
The vaccination(s) require two shots. “Say you get vaccinated today, then you get a boost 28 days later, and 7 to 10 days after that second shot, you’re optimally protected,” Fauci explained.
“I would think by the time you get to the beginning of April, you’ll start getting people who have no priority, just a normal person who has no underlying conditions. If we get them vaccinated, a full-court press, and you do that through April, May and June, by the time you get to the summer, the end of the summer and the start of the third quarter of 2021 – we should be in good shape. That’s what I’m hoping for,” Fauci said.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A cutting-edge center of 21st century global technology and a venue honoring the traditional offerings of helping those in need met at the intersection of Franklin and Washington streets this week in a collaborative effort for the betterment of the local community, and all points beyond.
Elliott and Cathy Masie built the Masie Center on the east side of Saratoga Springs 20 years ago. This week, Franklin Community Center – which serves thousands of people every year locally - has purchased the Masie building and will be expanding their services. The new building, to be renamed the Michael & Stacie Arpey Family Community Center, will allow the Franklin the space it has needed to grow their programs.
Franklin Community Center has served as a social service hub for the less fortunate in and around Saratoga since 1983.
The Center's programs include a food pantry, a free after-school prevention program for local students and affordable housing for low-income individuals, as well as assisting with furniture, clothing and household needs, among others.
“At the beginning of 2019, our board really committed to obtaining more space,” explains FCC Executive Director Kari Cushing. “We were at a point where the space didn’t provide confidentiality for the people we serve.” A fundraising campaign was initiated with the idea of building an addition to an existing building to create more space.
“We were in the middle of it and had raised about $1 million toward our $2.5 million goal when the world stopped and COVID happened,” Cushing says. “We were no longer able to use our volunteers, so we repurposed all of our staff and since March we’ve been filling grocery bags, unloading trucks, delivering supplies and just doing what needs to get done.”
At the same time, she says, the need for services increased exponentially.
“The numbers have just gone through the roof. The need usually ebbs and flows and goes with the economy, but right now people are in dire need of just basic services. Since the start of the pandemic, just the food pantry has served 2,300 families – and of those 588 of them were brand new, they’d never been to a food pantry before. Those numbers are staggering,” she said.
“In September. I looked across the street and saw a For Sale out in front of the Masie building. It seemed way too good to be true, but we had to at least explore our options.” The building was listed at $2.6 million, and members of the board visited the location.
“When I tell you it’s perfect, that’s an understatement. It’s wide open and we could do whatever we need to do with the interior space, but we were still too far from our fundraising goal. We only had $1 million raised and being a non-profit we’re not comfortable taking out a loan for more than a million dollars. Our Steering Committee met to go over our options and that’s when Stacie Arpey, who’s on our board stepped up to increase her pledge from $100,0000 to $1 million and make it a reality for us. The Masies lowered their original asking price, and a deal was struck. “Between the two of them, it became possible.”
The Masie Center has served for a generation as an international Learning LAB working with global organizations.
“We’ve probably had tens of thousands of executives come from around the world. We helped launch E-Learning there. When the pandemic hit, I looked at my staff and said, ‘OK, go home.’ I gave them computers and lights and screens and after a couple of months predicted, well, we’re not going to go back to regular work soon. We looked at each other and said: maybe this is the time to sell the building.
“After we put the building up for sale, Franklin Community Center was intrigued and one of their board members, Stacie Arpey, and her husband Michael decided they really wanted them to have it and gave them a million dollar donation to get to the price, and Cathy and I lowered (the asking price) by many hundreds of thousands of dollars because we couldn’t think of a better buyer for it than Franklin,” Masie says.
“What I like about Franklin is that they service people who have deep and continuing needs as well as people who have newly arrived at the point of need,” Masie says. “I think we need to be quick to respond to people when they enter that and help put them on a pathway to becoming more self-sustaining. And Franklin does that. The other thing is they work a lot with kids.”
For Masie, the present world continues via video, having conducted keynotes for tens of thousands of people during the pandemic, right from his piano room at home in Saratoga Springs.
“They do so much in that cramped building they’re in now – to have that 10,000 square feet of space, it’s going to be exciting to see what they can do,” said Masie, who conducted a walk-through with FCC staff this week.
“This new home for FCC will help ensure that families in Saratoga Springs having an inviting place to receive the resources of FCC for years to come,” Stacie Arpey said in a statement.
The transition will happen gradually allowing FCC to ensure there are no disruptions to the services provided. The plan is to maintain the current venues and begin adapting some of the organization’s programs into the new venue. “In the beginning of 2021 our goal as a Board will be to really delve into that and see how we can be more efficient and make things easier to access for the folks who use our services. We want to make sure that we make things better for Franklin and for the entire community,” says Cushing, who has been with FCC for 18 years.
“COVID has obviously turned everything upside down and has disrupted all of our lives, but we have a unique perspective: we get to see the other side of it, and I have to tell you how heart-warming it has been to see our community come together to make sure that nobody has to go without,” Cushing says. “We were scared to death when it started and we saw our numbers going through the roof. We didn’t even know if we would be able to serve everyone that came to us.
“Every day we would post our biggest needs on social media and we have a contactless drop-off in the front of our building and every day when we would come in, it would be overflowing with the things we had asked for. We never had to turn anybody away, because people were so generous. This community is absolutely amazing. I think Stacie and Mike embody everything hat our community is and Cathy and Elliott – everybody made it possible, it’s such a group effort and it’s wonderful to see.”
The Michael and Stacie Arpey Family Community Center /Franklin Community Center is in fundraising mode and need just under $1 million to complete their expansion campaign which would include costs for moving and potential renovations to the space. For more information or to contribute to the campaign go to: www.franklincommunitycenter.org.