In 2011, Saugerties turned 200.
Was it a very good year?
Depends on whom you ask.
But if you compare this past year to those that preceded it, and compare Saugerties to neighboring towns, we look pretty good. Some businesses have closed, but others have opened. The new hotel in the village is already planning events for the new year. After a difficult period caused by poor finances, the schools are on the rebound – thanks in no small part to the generosity of the community. That same generosity recently rescued the food pantry, whose cupboards, bare just a month ago, were full for the holidays.
It is in that spirit that we look forward to 2012 with optimism. Times are tough for small upstate towns. But Saugerties continues to foster a sense of community that compels people to help each other out. It’s a rare thing. This year, in our weekly interview series, we talked with many residents who moved here later in life. We asked everyone: “What makes Saugerties unique? What do you like best about this town?” A consensus quickly emerged. This is a community where people care about each other; where people still join clubs and organize festivals; where the best parts of mid-20th century America can still be found, mingling with new energy and ideas from New York City and beyond.
Yes, Saugerties is a town to watch. But to do that, you’ve got to know what’s up. This article doesn’t cover all the important events of 2011, but it does summarize most of the big stories this newspaper focused on this year. For readers who sometimes felt lost stepping into the middle of an ongoing story, or for those who want to feel more plugged in this coming year, this is the article for you.
Partition Street Hotel
It was nearly four years ago that we first learned about HITS President Tom Struzzieri’s plan to build a hotel and conference center at the former site of the Cantine Mill on Partition Street. Since then, the project has been hailed as a “shot in the arm” for the village and a sure-fire boon for local businesses and the tax-base by some, and criticized by others for lack of public access and for a supposed conflict-of-interest by U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, who had secured federal money for a sewer line near the property while a partner in the project through his co-ownership of the parcel.
Earlier this month, the hotel opened. This week, the restaurant opens. The convention center will follow.
It was a typical fractious Hudson Valley development debate. But in this case, the developer kept his head down, played the game and kept the money flowing. Though Struzzieri came away from the process feeling like local governments need to speed up the process and reduce impediments for developers, actually his project, variously estimated at a total cost of $10-12 million, went very fast.
For the past year, construction on the site has been constant; first with archeological surveys, then blasting, grading, and finally earlier this year, as the steel began to go up, one could finally make out the shape of the new buildings that have been the object of so much discussion.
When the project was proposed, George W. Bush was president, flipping houses was a great way to make money and Bear Stearns was alive and well. Now, several years into the deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression, you don’t see many big projects coming to fruition. By choosing to go forward with the hotel and convention center, not to shelve it, as many local developers have done with their projects, Tom Struzzieri is placing faith in the idea that there’s a demand in Saugerties for a 31-room hotel (with high-season per-night rates starting at $295), a convention center with a capacity ranging from 400 up to 600 (depending on how the space is used), and a restaurant and bar with a capacity of 150 (indoors) plus another 70 or 80 on the deck, weather permitting. After making my way through a bustling village to visit the site on a recent afternoon, and stepping out onto that aforementioned deck and seeing the waterfall, looking more picturesque than ever from that high and protruding vantage point, I’d venture to say that if this sort of project were to succeed at any place in Ulster County in this most unfortunate economy, it would be here.
Opus 40 is a sprawling bluestone sculpture in High Woods, created by sculptor and Bard professor Harvey Fite. Fite’s family, which has managed the property for decades, wants to sell the property to a non-profit. They’re still working on getting government grants and private investors.
During the first phase of the process, the town of Saugerties was involved. The plan was for the town to take ownership of the property and a newly formed non-profit to run it as a park, with expanded offerings like concerts and plays.
Over the summer, the town withdrew its involvement, citing a request from the new non-profit. By that point its involvement had become a frequent object of attack by the town’s Republican party, which called the board’s expenditure of between $15,000 and $20,000 in seed money wasteful.
Happening at the same time was an effort by the Saugerties Historical Commission to designate the entire property historic. The sculpture, already so designated, sits on a different parcel. The commission was concerned future owners might endanger the historic character of the property, which contains several old bluestone quarries.
The town denied the commission’s designation, reasoning that the woodlands and old quarries aren’t sufficiently historic.
The property owners, Fite’s stepson Tad Richards and his wife, Patricia, opposed the designation and were pleased with the outcome. They say the sculpture and surroundings represent an artistic site, not a historic one.
Affordable housing in Glasco
The 40-unit Dickinson’s Keep subsidized housing project in Glasco wound its way through the approval process this year. It aroused strong protest from neighbors and likely contributed to the end of Greg Helsmoortel’s long tenure as town supervisor.
An October meeting attracted more than 150 opponents. The picketers carried signs reading “we cannot afford your affordable,” and “can we bankrupt Saugerties – yes we can.”
Opponents said the town should turn away the project because it would add nothing to the town. It would only suck up resources by increasing school enrollment and requiring more municipal services. Supporters said the project, by offering rents in the $800-$1000 range, would serve a need in the town. The zoning allows for it and the tax agreement the town concluded would bring in more money than the developer would pay under and alternative state tax program that could have been used.
Opponents were especially outraged by the school budget increase, which was estimated at several hundred thousand dollars by some. This was a huge issue, as school and town officials totally disagreed with the opponents.
Speakers pointed out that the cost per pupil in Saugerties schools is $14,000. Assuming the proposed 40 units produce 25 additional students, the cost to the school district would be $350,000. While the project engineer, Richard Praetorius, has estimated an additional 12 students from the project, few of the opponents accepted this number.
Kevin O’Connor, the executive director of Rural Ulster Preservation Company, said the number is misleading, as it is derived by dividing the total cost of educating students by the number of students. An additional student would not add $14,000 unless that student brought the total in his or her grade up enough to require an additional class. Retired teacher Bill Hayes, using a number of students provided by the manager of a similar project, said assuming the 36 additional children were spread over the ages from birth to 17, and the number of school age children were distributed among the grades, the result would be two additional children per grade, probably not enough to trigger the need for an additional class.
Facing a crowd that was overwhelmingly opposed to the project, Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel acknowledged that the favors it. He read from a letter he wrote New York State Housing Commissioner Brian Lawler in which he states the need for “a sufficient supply of adequate, safe and sanitary dwelling accommodations properly planned for individuals and families having less than or equal to 60 percent of the median income for Ulster County.”
“I don’t see how anyone could disagree with that,” he said, but many in the crowd disagreed, loudly booing.
O’Connor also cited statistics showing a lack of housing that working people can afford, referencing studies that show a gap of more than 5,000 units in Ulster County and nearly 500 in Saugerties. Affordable housing is defined by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development as costing no more than 30 percent of income. With an average rent of $1,100 for a two-bedroom apartment in Ulster County, “you would need to earn $44,000 to afford an apartment.”
Incoming supervisor Kelly Myers has vowed to end the town’s support for the project. But because the Planning Board, not the Town Board, is in charge of granting approval to the project, lack of support won’t doom Dickinson’s Keep. Last month, when this issue came up, board members Fred Costello and Bruce Leighton mentioned the case of Bonded Concrete, in which the board attempted to block a project it didn’t like and ended up losing a court case it’s still paying for. The lesson and the audience for this parable were clear.
A big year for Republicans
After 12 years in the town’s top spot, Greg Helsmoortel was defeated by village trustee Kelly Myers.
The margin was 2,396 to 1,830.
Helsmoortel, who is not affiliated with a political party, was backed by the Democrats. Myers, a Republican, had her party’s endorsement.
The single biggest issue of the campaign was the incumbent’s support of an affordable housing project proposed for Glasco. Myers opposed it.
And though the Town Board candidates both echoed the positions of their supervisor candidates, both Fred Costello Jr. and Leeanne Thornton were re-elected. They fended off challenges from Republican candidates Joe Roberti Sr. and Pamela Riggins. Republican highway superintendent candidate Doug Myer defeat Democrat Darren Chlud 2,428-1,751.
In Legislature district one, the count was Wawro, 999; Harkavy 775, and Terry Valk, 178. In district two, Aiello won with 882, followed by Luppino with 737 and Walter Frey with 192. Fabiano, running unopposed, had 1,047 votes.
Republicans won the three Ulster County Legislature seats that were up for grabs. Robert Aiello defeated Democrat Virginia Luppino and Conservative Walter Frey in District 1. Mary Wawro, running on the Republican and Conservative lines, defeated Democrat Mike Harkavy and Independence candidate Terry Valk, a registered Republican, to represent District 2. Dean Fabiano, running unopposed on the Republican line, will represent District 3, which is split between the towns of Saugerties and Ulster.
Also of interest: all the winning candidates had the endorsement of the Independence Party.
The new Saugerties Public Library opened for business at the beginning of 2011.
With the renovation of the old building and construction of the 8,000-square-feet approved by voters in May 2008 at a cost of $7 million complete, a sneak peak on Saturday, Jan 29 was followed by the official first day, Feb. 1.
Much of the new space is given over to specific activity-based rooms, like a teen room, a children’s room, a community meeting room, and a private study room for tutoring. The new library provides Wi-Fi access for laptops and 21 public computers. The old library had four. The library’s entrance was moved to the ground level of the newly built addition – no more stairs to get in. In fact, it is now possible to get around without climbing a single step – the new library has an elevator.
The library has two floors, with spaces devoted to children, teens and community groups occupying much of the first and the main stacks on the second.
The community room has a seating capacity of 80 and contains permanently mounted audio visual equipment, including a projector and screen, and is available for use as a meeting place for community groups. This room will provide a much-needed alternative to the Senior Center on Market Street.
The children’s room, also on the first floor, is painted bright green and blue, with matching carpets of various patterns. The teen room is fully enclosed to give teens a sense of privacy and prevent them from disturbing other patrons. Blues and oranges dominate the room, which includes modular shelving that can be removed for events. Three computers line one wall of the room, and windows allow a librarian to keep an eye on things.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” said Maggie Green, who lives across the street. “I feel sort of attached to it. Watching it go up was almost magical.”
Many commented on the wealth of natural light the new design provides.
Ashley Drewes, Juda Leah Selkowitz, and Tyler Beatrice and Ian Flanigan established three new retail stores in the Village of Saugerties, each of which opened at the end of 2010. Besides their synchronous timing, the four entrepreneurs have something else in common: they’re all 25 or under.
Although Drewes recently decided to close her shop, Sugartown Vintage Boutique, the overall feeling of youthful business energy is still there in the village. Residents and visitors have noticed. Many people we talked to this year commented on the trend.
In 1811 our 35-year-old nation had a population of 7.2 million spread over 17 states. In Europe, Napolean, his empire at its peak, prepared for his ill-fated invasion of Russia. Beethoven began work on his seventh symphony in Bohemia. Three years later he’d be totally deaf. The German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in American history (measured by the amount of slaves who took part – over 200) took place in Louisiana. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom Abraham Lincoln called “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” was born.
And in New York’s Hudson Valley, the town of Saugerties was established.
Before that, the area that would make up the town was considered part of the Kingston Commons, which included the communities that sprung up around the Kingston Stockade.
Having swelled in population since the original Dutch and German settlers took up residence, Saugerties petitioned the state for self-governance, which was granted in April of 1811 On April 5, the first Town Board meeting was held at the home of Christian Fiero and the town was incorporated. John Kiersted served as the town’s first supervisor.
This year, the town of Saugerties celebrated the 200th anniversary of its incorporation with parades and events.
Development in the town
A conceptual plan presented in August 2009 for the 768-acre Winston Farm, the site of Woodstock ’94, included a vision of hundreds of assembly and engineering jobs in a low-impact, high-tech manufacturing campus. Two years later, the vision is still just that. The plan, which was drawn by CH2M Hill development and IDC architects, envisions such industries as bio-medical, solar energy and pharmaceuticals. These would be large-scale firms employing workers in categories from production workers to top management, according to plans presented at several public meetings.
Once the plan was drawn, the town began seeking interest from the kinds of industries that would need buildings of the type envisioned – very large manufacturing facilities. The poor economy put a damper on such large-scale development, Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel said. The development costs would be great, and a developer would want to see probable occupants for the buildings.
Deputy Supervisor Fred Costello said after financing can be secured, the next step would be to find developers who would turn the conceptual plans into real-world construction plans. He praised CH2M Hill, and suggested that they may have an inside track on development, although the process would probably be open for bidding.
Neither would predict when development on the site might occur.
On the brighter side, Helsmoortel said there has been a good deal of interest in the Kings Highway corridor since the recent completion of municipal water and sewer services. Several companies have expressed interest in existing buildings or sites for new construction, he said.
After two failed attempts at the polls, the Saugerties Board of Education approved an austerity budget exactly one dollar lower than the $53.3-million spending plan rejected by voters last June by a margin of just 49 votes. But unlike in years past, no student programs were cut. As a result, students were able to participate in sports, arts, music, and extra-curricular activities.
The board approved the austerity budget with a split vote of 6-2, with trustees George Heidcamp and Theresa Bach-Tucker voting against the proposal.
Trustee Charles Schirmer expressed disappointment in the turnout. With almost 13,000 registered voters in Saugerties, only approximately 20 percent cast ballots for the second budget proposal.
Other trustees were more concerned with results than turnout.
Bach-Tucker said she felt that by rejecting the second budget proposal, the public was demanding further cuts. During the discussion period, Bach-Tucker suggested eliminating funding for all elementary school librarians and library services.
According to superintendent Seth Turner, the savings from eliminating elementary school libraries would not be significant.
Several other trustees spoke out in opposition to any program cuts.
The budget carried a total price tag of $53,327,600, and a tax levy increase of 6.38 percent. The tax rate per thousand dollars of assessed property value will be $16.77 in Saugerties, $22.40 in the town of Ulster, and $18.34 in Woodstock.
In brighter news, three Saugertiesians won the lottery this year.
First came Ruth Robinson. She didn’t have an easy life. She’d worked a variety of jobs to raise her four kids on her own. But last July things got a whole lot easier; she won a cool million dollars the New York State Lottery Sterling Silver scratch-off game.
Robinson said she worked at the Orpheum Theater for eight years, “doing pretty much everything you do in a movie theater,” and also worked for the Bank of America.
Robinson said she would be sharing her fortune with her children – three girls and a boy – and her eight grandchildren. She also plans to donate money to a variety of causes. She named the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) as one she wants to support. “I had a dog and several cats, and I still feel sad when I see pictures of homeless animals,” she said.
Robinson bought her ticket at the Speedy Mart at 317 Main Street. Nish Barot, who owns the store with her husband, Harry, said this was the first million-dollar ticket they have sold, and she’s thrilled.
Jason and Joy Peterson, married in June, never dreamed their big day would be followed by a Mega payday just four months later. But that’s what happened in October when they won $1 million in the Mega Money Multiplier scratch-off game.
Jason Peterson purchased the couple’s $1,000,000 winning ticket on October 7 at the I & W (Mobil) Food Mart on Route 32 in Kingston. “I was on my way to work and stopped to put some gas in my truck,” explained the auto parts professional. “I went inside and decided to grab a ticket. I asked for one of the newest [tickets] they had and the clerk handed me this one.”
The sign at the New York State Thruway announces that Saugerties is on Budget Travel magazine’s “10 coolest towns” in America. Last summer, the American Automobile Association had a picture of the Saugerties lighthouse on the cover of its magazine, “Car and Travel,” and included Saugerties among the four must-see towns to visit.
Saugerties got top billing. Inside there was a photo of Opus 40. The other three towns were Saratoga, Port Jefferson on Long Island and Auburn in the Fingerlakes.
The town is especially attractive to people who enjoy the outdoors, the magazine states. “With the Catskill Mountains to the west and the Hudson River to the east, Saugerties is a Mecca for sports enthusiasts. Hikers, canoeists and kayakers love the region.”
The lighthouse is a popular bed and breakfast as well as an attractive place to visit, writes Lyn Dobrin. “The lighthouse can be reached through a short walk through a nature preserve,” she states, but “make sure it won’t be high tide when you want to return.”
Dobrin describes the town as “vibrant, unpretentious and welcoming,” and asserts that many artists have moved to Saugerties from Woodstock. The village business district has houses dating back to 1780 and is included on the nation’s National Register of Historic Places. Especially attractive is the Inquiring Mind Bookstore, “a gathering place for book clubs, music groups, a chess club and for people who just want to hang out and play a board game.”
During the summer, visitors should see the HITS horse shows, featuring world-class competitors. Opus 40, the life’s work of sculptor Harvey Fite, was a highlight of the visit, Dobrin states. “It is a place to visit in all seasons.”
Tropical Storm Irene caused a lot of financial pain and personal inconvenience. But it also provided an opportunity for heroism. Take They Gray Ghost, a late ’80s GMC truck owned by Bart Bell, who works at Lynch’s Marina in Saugerties. During the most intense part of the storm, when it looked like several boats and the docks they were tied to were about to be swept out of the Esopus and into the Hudson, Bell parked his pick-up at the edge of the creek and lashed everything to its bumper. As the creek rose — eventually reaching the windows of the truck — The Gray Ghost held fast, saving the dock and boats.
Bell thought that might have been it for The Gray Ghost – one last act of martyrdom in service of the fleet. But the old truck wasn’t through.
“Once the water receded, I let the truck dry out for two days, checked the oil to make sure water hadn’t gotten into it, and she started right up,” Bell said with a smile.