Helsmoortel exit interview

Greg Helsmoortel met me in his office two days before turning it over to Kelly Myers.

He looks back on his 12-year tenure with positive feelings. The town has changed for the better, he believes. Compared to its neighbors, development in Saugerties is bustling and residents are hopeful. He doesn’t take personal credit for this and he doesn’t believe government is the sole influence of the course a town takes. But it does play a big role by creating the right environment for good things to happen, and Helsmoortel sees his time in office as a good period for the town.

The former supervisor was always interested in attracting businesses to the town. The biggest complaint developers have is the length and expense of the approval process, so Saugerties tried to speed it up. Instead of using a fixed schedule like many towns, Saugerties lets applicants move more quickly if they’re ready.

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Bringing town water and sewer to Kings Highway to spur commercial growth took most of his tenure to bring to fruition, but last year it was finished and Helsmoortel believes it will boom as the economy improves. (Lack of municipal services was a frequent deal-breaker for would-be businesses.)

The timing for Kings Highway development is unfortunate, as “we won’t see the fruits of it right away because of the economy, but you will eventually see it develop,” he said. One asset that has already moved to the corridor is the new Army Reserve Center, which depended on the available water and sewer service.

One of Helsmoortel’s initial campaign promises was the reconstruction of the Tissal Road intersection with Kings Highway, a dangerous intersection because of the way it crossed the railroad tracks. “That was a campaign promise, and it took a lot longer than I anticipated, but it is done,” he said.

Though we haven’t heard much about developing Winston Farm lately, a high-tech industrial park is still hoped for there. Helsmoortel cites a meeting town officials had with several state officials and development corporations about the property — the site of Woodstock ‘94, located north of Route 212 and West of 32N — which led to its selection as a place to steer big developers. Next came the multi-national CH2M Hill and IDC Architects and talk of nanotechnology. Everyone’s fingers are still crossed.

Helsmoortel says other towns use Saugerties as a model for development.

“It is curious that Kelly [Myers] talked about seeking advice from other towns in the area,” Helsmoortel said. “We are the town that other towns come to, to see how we operate.”

Helsmoortel’s tenure also saw the offices move to a new town hall on High Street. The building was purchased from Markertek, which was moving. It replaced two separated buildings and it has provided ample space for government operations, said Helsmoortel. Indeed, the building had enough extra space to provide a temporary library while the Saugerties Public Library addition was built. When the new library was completed, the town government gained an excellent conference room, he said.

The building has a number of traditional features that add to its character, Helsmoortel said, citing the wainscoting in the courtroom that was uncovered during renovations. “There was a hung ceiling in here, and one of the contractors poked a flashlight up there and saw the old wainscoting ceiling and said, ‘we’ve got to save that.’ It worked out good.”

The town’s role in maintaining the Diaz Ambulance Service is not well known, Helsmoortel said. But in order to keep the service going, the town created a special ambulance district that funded the service through taxes.

“We had a public hearing, and one person spoke in favor of it, and this was something we were going to do anyway unless the public came and spoke up for it.”

The town has also improved its parks, with major improvements at Malden and a complete rebuilding of Glasco waterfront park. This was accomplished almost entirely through grants, Helsmoortel said.

Saugerties can take pride in its sports facilities, and the care the town takes of them. And, while the Kiwanis built and operate the skating rink, the town provided the skateboard park behind it, a park that gets extensive use throughout the year.

As with any administration, there have been disappointments along the way, Helsmoortel acknowledged. He was particularly disappointed that the town’s involvement in purchasing Opus 40 through grants did not work out. However, he said he is hopeful that the not-for-profit corporation that grew out of the effort appears to be moving in the right direction.

“I think Opus 40 might have been formed a little stronger the way we formed it,” Helsmoortel said.

Helsmoortel, who was at one time a Republican, was offered the Democratic nomination in 1980. At that point he reenrolled as a member of no party. He lost that election, but has remained unaffiliated with a party ever since. Over the past 12 years, he has run with Democrat endorsement.

A general interest in and love for the town drew Helsmoortel into politics, he said. He was among the founders of the New Vision Party, which is still the governing party in the village, and he felt the town needed a new Town Hall. Ironically, one of the issues the party was involved in was a study of consolidation of the town and village police departments, an idea that was dropped at the time. It was a good idea then, and it was inevitable it would eventually happen, Helsmoortel said.

One campaign issue Helsmoortel said was unfair was the association of the town government with the Bonded Concrete issue, which led to a judgment of $250,000 against the town. The incident that provoked the lawsuit took place before Helsmoortel’s term in office; he inherited it, yet the Republican campaign made it appear that the current administration was to blame. What also seemed lost in the campaign rhetoric was the near-zero increase in town taxes during the past two difficult financial years as his opponents headlined the school tax increase, which was not under the town’s control.

But one of the contributions to the town of Saugerties Helsmoortel is proudest of is his involvement in getting the baseball team, the Dutchmen, going. “My father and I, our insurance agency, ran it. “Two young fellows who played for the Kingston team, wanted to start a Saugerties team in the Hudson Valley Rookie League, and they were looking for sponsors to buy a uniform or two, and we said we’d sponsor the whole thing.”

The team was popular, Helsmoortel said. “We could get 2,000-plus people up at the field for a game,” he recalled. Helsmoortel did not play himself, he said; he was not a good enough player to meet the league’s standards. “I was a wanna-be baseball player,” he said.

“It was a good caliber team; we had a few players who had been in the minors played for us. Our uniforms were major league uniforms, our baseballs were major league baseballs; we partied after games,” he recalled.

Among other public functions Helsmoortel was involved in were the Mum Festival and the Rotary Club. He has run several businesses, including the Dutch Tavern, which his family established, then sold after a year, and a travel agency that fell victim to the online travel sites.

What’s next for Helsmoortel? At this point his plans are uncertain, he said. He is considering possibilities for a business, and could seek political office, but it’s too soon to predict, he said. One thing that is certain, Helsmoortel will be devoting time to his garden. “I have a greenhouse. I start my own plants from seed and I propagate them; I’ll be doing more of that.”

Helsmoortel has an insurance business, which includes a real estate brokerage run by his wife, Thomasine. They have four children. He has an associate’s degree in business from the State University at Cobleskill. His prior experience in elective office includes student body president at the college.

 

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