Some of the major Saugerties stories of 2015
Library turns 100
Throughout 2015, the Saugerties Public Library marked its 1915 founding. It was built as one of more than 2,500 libraries funded by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, a self-made Scottish immigrant who appreciated the potential of the library for autodidacts of any economic position. He believed in helping the “industrious and ambitious; not those who need everything done for them, but those who, being most anxious and able to help themselves, deserve and will be benefited by help from others.”
The design of the Carnegie libraries varied somewhat from town to town.
However, two items had to be included in each set of plans. It was necessary to have an entry staircase to symbolize persons being elevated by learning and had to include a lamppost on the street to symbolize enlightenment through reading.
(And while the lamppost remains, the stairway hasn’t been used since the library was remodeled and expanded in 2009— Carnegie’s symbolic elevation didn’t include an option for the disabled. )
The library celebrated the anniversary throughout the year, with special events, historical lectures, displays and films.
Come on Pilgrim
The proposed 178-mile Pilgrim Oil pipeline was a focal point for environmentalists. Dozens of towns and Ulster County have opposed it. Saugerties, hoping to at least meet with representatives before condemning the project, were soured after a proposed public meeting was canceled when the town and company couldn’t agree on a format. (Pilgrim felt a public forum would devolve into a shouting match.) Opponents say the pipeline could leak and the country needs to invest in renewable energy, not more large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure. The company says both are possible, and that it makes sense to invest in more up-to-date infrastructure for oil because we are a long way from renewable energy replacing fossil fuels. The latest news came in December, when DEC and the Thruway Authority announced they would jointly oversee the environmental review. Opponents had hoped DEC alone would be in charge, reasoning it would be tougher.
Early in 2015, this newspaper editorialized that the village should pursue state grants to study whether consolidation of the village and town government should be pursued. We argued that the choice was simple— village taxpayers pay 25 to 30 percent more in property taxes for essentially the same services. The state is giving away money to study this issue because the governor has identified the number of local governments (over 10,000) as one of the main reasons for the state’s high property taxes. True, there are some things the village government does that the town doesn’t, but that should all be laid out and considered, and residents can decide if they would be better served by a single government than by two.
Although our argument was not greeted with enthusiasm on Partition St., the village and town later announced several new shared service ventures, mostly between the town Highway Department and village Department of Public works. For example, the village will be using the town’s new salt shed, which saves it from having to replace its shed. The two departments also traded some snow-plow routes in places where it made sense, and will share paving equipment and labor. The village was so pleased with the agreement and general good vibes it decided to give the town 800,000 gallons of water for its new storage tank for free.
How much will this type of cooperation save taxpayers? Hard to say. The cold logic of the consolidation spreadsheet usually means savings are only realized when the newly combined entity renders some positions unnecessary. That’s what happened with the police department.
Still, sharing services is a step in the right direction.
House on the hill
A few more pages in the saga of Clovelea/The Dragon Inn were written this year when Brooklyn developer Jason Moskowitz purchased the property in a county foreclosure auction in April. Moskowitz, while stressing that it would take some time to gather investors, said a likely plan would be to build a boutique hotel on the property and fix up the original building enough for it to serve as a common area. Over the rest of the year, the new owner had conflicts with the police (he said the department wasn’t doing enough to keep out vagrants) and the village (which said it wasn’t even sure he owned the property, and later slapped a stop-work order on cleanup operations undertaken without a permit). Nothing major, but as the year wound down, the formerly glorious, now decrepit, mansion seemed no closer to restoration than when the year began. And though it’s not listed on the realtor’s website, a “for sale” sign remains out front.
A team for the ages
It was a year that won’t soon be forgotten for the Sawyers of Saugerties boys’ basketball team.
The 2014-15 squad was the first in school history to win back-to-back Mid-Hudson Athletic League titles, they were the first team to win a sectional title, and they were the first team to play in a state regional game.
And while they came up short in the regional game when opponent Spring Valley sunk a three-pointer in the closing moments of the game, by then the Sawyer boys were already the most successful boys’ basketball team in school history.
Saugerties finished with a 15-4 record and was ranked 28 in the state.
After more than a decade of live music – 162 shows featuring 450 musicians – the John St. Jam in Saugerties came to an end last April at its usual home at the Dutch Arms Chapel on John St. The final event featured Jam founders and organizers Steve and Terri Massardo along with Big Joe Fitz, Terry Seeley, Marji Zintz, Mike Baglione, Kimberly, Fran Palmieri and Paul Luke Andreassen.
“It’s taken us over a year to come to this decision,” said Terri Massardo. “We agonized over leaving our audience, leaving a financial hole at the church and leaving the musicians one less good listening room to share their voices. We’ve reached a point in our lives, though, when family and other considerations are becoming more important to us.”
The Jam began as an open mic. But in an effort to attract a wider-ranging audience and ensure a high level of musicianship, the Massardos began setting it all up in advance. As the Jam grew in popularity over the years, the format for each evening was established. In an intimate “living room” setting lit by softly glowing lamps, four musicians arranged in a circle performed acoustic music for an audience seated on folding chairs just feet away. The performers’ musical styles ranged from folk music to blues and everything in between.
Andreassen credited the Massardos’ dedication to the singers and songwriters of the region as creating an “Austin City Limits of the North country” in the John St. Jam. “I was proud as a performer as well as a spectator to participate through the years,” he said. “I have seldom witnessed as genuine a respect for singers and writers as I’ve witnessed by Steve, Terri and their merry band of volunteers who are always there at the shows to help. All I can say is, ‘They’re a tough act to follow.’ A void in the music scene will be evident for years to come.”
School Board election — changing of the guard
Since the middle of the last decade, the Saugerties School Board was run by George Heidcamp. The longtime Conservative Party chairman and ex-cop won power after waging war against the previous board and superintendent for fiscal profligacy via newspaper columns and his blog, and he was an often divisive figure once elected, drawing by far the most attention, especially during the budget cuts that followed in the wake of the Great Recession.
But last May, three challengers managed to oust three trustees who had been loyal to Heidcamp for years, and together with two other trustees, elected a new board leadership— President Bob Thomann and Vice-President Jim Mooney.
So far, it’s too soon to say what, if any, impact the change will have. Absent any particular controversy surrounding a school policy the board has jurisdiction over, most of the action takes place in the run up to the May budget vote.
In 2015, New York State became the epicenter for the national anti-Common Core movement, and Saugerties was held up as a district that had taken a particularly hard line toward students who chose not to take the standardized tests for grades 3-8.
The controversy burned hot in the weeks leading up to the spring tests. Critics of standardized tests in Saugerties and beyond criticized the district for its so-called “sit and stare” policy, which required students who didn’t take the multi-day test to sit at their desks with their test booklets and nothing to occupy themselves. Other districts let students read a book quietly. Eventually, Saugerties, too, relented and allowed students to read, but that wasn’t announced until just before testing began. Prior to that, Superintendent Seth Turner said the district was following the state’s guidelines, which made no provisions for students who opt out. At the same time, board President George Heidcamp warned opt-outs would increase if the district loosened up its policy.
Both Heidcamp and Turner said the district could face consequences if the participation rate fell under 95 percent, including greater state control. Turner said formulating a response plan would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and it was possible that eventually parents might be able to pick which school they wanted their children to attend, which would cause transportation costs to soar.
Opt-out rates in Saugerties and across the state rose dramatically. In Saugerties, they went from under five percent to 23 percent for English Language Arts and 30 percent for math. Statewide, the figure was 20 percent. So far, the state hasn’t announced any consequences. At this point the concern is mainly about whether the test results could be valid with so many refusing them, rather than trying to punish the countless school districts under guidelines originally intended for quite another reason— to dissuade districts from stopping under-performing students from taking the tests.
It was a rough year for large retailers. After 34 years, JC Penney, an anchor of the Hudson Valley Mall since the mall’s opening in town of Ulster in 1981, closed. Also gone: The Children’s Place, Deb Shops and RadioShack, the last two victims of corporate bankruptcy. And across Route 9W, Office Depot and The Sports Authority bit the dust.
The closings comprising this latest wave of retail contraction are related to serious corporate issues, but they also signify an ominous shift in the local retail landscape, according to Terry Parisian, general manager of the Hudson Valley Mall and a Saugerties Village Board trustee.
Parisian thinks the region’s lackluster economic demographics make it hard to find new retailers. He pointed to a Marist Bureau of Economic Research study which found the median household income of Ulster County is below the national average and declining. The study also showed that the population has declined four percent, compared to an increase of five percent in 2007— a year before the Great Recession. “Until things change, we’ll see more of this happening,” he said. “The current demographics of the county means it makes no sense for stores to exist here.”
Major stores have come and gone before at the mall. When Kmart, another anchor, closed in 1995, the store was vacant for a couple of years before the space was reconfigured into Best Buy and Dick’s Sporting Goods, a part of the mall that was further expanded with the opening of Target in 2001.
But this time around, the mall’s reinventing itself might be more difficult.
Stop the presses
After 138 years, the last issue of the Saugerties Post Star hit newsstands July 2, citing a weak economy.
Karin Yerry, who had been with the paper for 15 years and served as editor until just a week before staff were informed the paper would close, said she could see the closure coming, but was still surprised because the paper wasn’t losing money. She described the way the paper’s corporate owners gradually reduced the paper’s workforce. “I was working all the time; reporting, editing, laying out the paper— there was no one else in news.”
Yerry relocated to North Carolina, near another former Post Star editor, Heather Plonchak, a friend.
Plonchak also started in the mailroom.
“I offered to cover things for them. I wasn’t officially a reporter, but they found a way to pay me.”
Plonchak served as editor from 2004-2007. Donna Gomez followed, from 2007 to 2013.
Silver Burkett was the editor during the paper’s final weeks.
Larry Thornton had been with the paper since 1969, when it was called the Catskill Mountain Post. The paper merged with the Star the following year. In addition to selling advertising, Thornton also “took photos and brought in the news.”
The news of the paper’s closure spread through the town. “People are stopping their cars and pulling me over on the street to ask if it’s true that the papers are folding,” he said.
“It’s sad to see [the demise of the Post Star]” said Jim Gage, who used to cover sports. “The competition was good.”
Tragic car accident
The car, driven by Meredith McSpirit, 19, who survived, failed to negotiate the turn from Washington Ave. onto Montgomery St. and careened down the hill, coming to rest on a Dock St. home.
All four men — Adam “Jeff” McQueen, 22, Dante Crump, 22, Kaireem Meeks, 24, and Jonte Clark, 26 — were fast friends. All had attended Kingston High School and all lived in the city, except McQueen, who lived in Ulster Park. Two of them were scholarship students at exclusive private colleges. They were on their way home from the HITS horse shows, where they’d recently gotten jobs.
The news brought an overwhelming wave of grief to everyone who knew them; the adults who nurtured them as kids, the friends who played basketball with them at the Y, the girls who flirted with them in high school— everyone, man and woman, parent or friend, who worried about them as they made their way into a world not always welcoming to young black men.
The place on Dock St. where the car came to a rest soon became a shrine. Candles, trophies, footballs, basketballs, liquor bottles, flowers. “Four beautiful souls,” read one memorial, “gone but never forgotten.”
One visitor to the memorial in the days following the accident was James Michael, a member of the Kingston Board of Education and owner of Sophia’s Kitchen on Broadway. He knew the men when they were boys attending high school.
“They were the nicest kids you could find,” he said. “Always showed respect.”
He scrawled a message on a vigil candle, then looked up.
“It’s a damn shame. They were so young… ”
Many said Greg Helsmoortel sealed the deal on his eighth term back in August when he, along with trusty Deputy Supervisor Fred Costello, secured the cross-endorsement of the Republicans in September. From that point on, it was his election to lose. As long as he didn’t do anything stupid, he couldn’t lose to an opponent with just one line.
And that’s how it went. Most of the drama in the 2015 campaign surrounded the quixotic District 2 race for county Legislature, in which incumbent Chris Allen was facing assault charges surrounding a bizarre altercation at a swimming hole; an over-the-top anonymous mailer accusing him of misogyny and waging a one-man war on women was probably the most colorful interlude in the campaign, though Allen still won handily. (Those charges are still pending, though.)
Meanwhile, Helsmoortel sat back and let opponent Gaetana Ciarlante make the attacks. Some, like the town’s miniscule fund balance identified in a state Comptroller audit, had merit; others, like suggesting the fact that Helsmoortel and other board members make their living in real estate means they are pursuing policies designed to push taxpayers to the breaking point so they can profit on the delinquent properties, did not.
Aside from occasionally stepping in to defend his honor, Helsmoortel mostly reiterated themes from previous campaigns. Beyond the day-to-day administration of the town government, with a total budget of $17 million, less than half of which is controlled directly by the board, his priorities remain economic development, which for Helsmoortel means getting commercial and light industrial companies to set up shop on Kings Highway, and anywhere else in town they might like, for that matter.
When the polls closed, he had 67 percent of the vote.
The year closed on a somber note when 19-year-old firefighter Capt. Jack Rose was killed in the line of duty just days before Christmas. See this week’s coverage for more.