Hugh Reynolds: Faso needs a strategy

Made it to a couple of anti-Trump, Where’s John (Faso)? rallies over the weekend, one in Kingston and the other in Kinderhook. Faso attended neither. Both were characterized by signs, placards and fists in the air.

I don’t know if “rally” is the proper term. For sure, “town hall” isn’t. Town hall sessions present the opportunity for an exchange of ideas, opinions, whatever. It takes more than one hand clapping.

Congressman Faso, in office 55 days when the Kingston rally commenced, has decided these kinds of forums are unproductive, staged and a waste of his own and everyone’s else’s time. I think he’s wrong on every count. These rallies may not represent all the voices of a bitterly divided people, but they are people and they have voices.

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Organizers drew an estimated 700 to 750 participants to Kingston’s George Washington School, at 6 p.m. on a Friday night. Impressive. Very impressive. Organizers had hyped a crowd of 2,000 for Saturday at Faso’s district office in Kinderhook. Cops were expecting about 500 on an October-like afternoon. They got about 300, more than a few who walked over from nearby homes. Also impressive.

For even the casual observer, the issues were obvious. One had only to read the signs. I didn’t pay much attention to the handouts. The homemades, scrawled on cardboard and stuck to busted yardsticks, told the stories.

One little girl, no more than four years old, was standing on the curb with her two friends and their mother, all holding anti-Trump or anti-Faso signs. I looked real hard but did not see a single Hillary Clinton or Zephyr Teachout sign. The little kid’s sign, bigger than she was, read “Dump Trump.” She said she and her family are moving to Rochester this month, so the sign’s portable.

My favorite was a handmade cutout at Kinderhook of a smiling Faso, front tooth blackened, with the caption “What? Me Worry?” (In case anybody forgot, Faso won the election by some 26,000 votes against Teachout.)

I was put off by organizers yelling crowd-leading chants into bullhorns. But, hey, it wasn’t my rally. The events reminded me of applause signs at ballparks. The crowds were responsive.

Absent from both rallies, and I searched a lot of faces, was any evidence of politicians, which was surprising to me, since crowds are to pols like flies to honey. In Kingston, Saugerties county Legislator Chris Allen was circulating a “save the ACA” resolution he plans to submit at this month’s regular session, but that’s just Chris. Woodstock county legislator Jonathan Heppner led the (failed) ACA charge in the legislature last month, but apparently had better things to do than attend a rally with more than 700 potential future constituents.

With some 600 days to go until the next congressional election, I think it’s way too early to gauge the impact of what are shaping up as weekly rallies against just about anything Trump proposes. It could build. More likely, I think, it could quiet down as people tire of the same routines.

Faso needs to pay attention. Others are beginning to develop a profile. Better yet, he ought to stage a few rallies of his own. At the very least, we’d hear what the other side has to say under live fire. I can’t wait.

 

Dominoes, anyone?

The Hull boys were back in town last week. The Georgia-based Hull Property Group, new (as of January) owners of the depressed Hudson Valley Mall, dropped by with an update on their plans. You wouldn’t confuse company founder Jim Hull and government relations vice president John Mulherin, a pair of tall, well-groomed, smooth-talking, slow-walking Southerners, with the road cast from Deliverance.

But deliver they must. They risk losing their $8 million fire-sale investment, abandoning the county’s largest mall, what they called “that 70-acre behemoth on the hill,” to suffer neglect and disinvestment.

Call it the domino theory. Hull and Mulherin — like long-married couples, they finish each other’s sentences — contend that the county’s retail heart could be capped by a 70-acre pile of bricks and mortar if their plans for HVM don’t pan out. Like a bad tooth left to fester, the effect on other malls on the 1.6-mile commercial strip could be decidedly negative. Based on what they paid for it — previous mall owners stuck creditors with $50 million in 2015 — the mall is a good deal closer to closure than renewal.

This you would not deduce from the upbeat duo. True, HVM is a turkey, but it’s still sitting up and taking nourishment. There’s life in the now-36-year-old bird. The trick, they suggest, is to pluck the right feathers. As they say in the stock market, Hudson Valley Mall will be getting a haircut.

Miss Penney’s and Macy’s? They won’t be coming back. Nor, the new owners suggest, are any major anchors clamoring to replace the 150,000 square feet of empty space those stores only recently filled.

Health Quest plans a medical facility in about half that space, but that’s a few years away. Bulldozers will level what is now considered a disincentive for attracting new business. “We need to bite the bullet,” said Hull.

Other tenants are leaving or planning to leave.

On the plus side, the new owners are working on plans for a major expansion of the mall’s popular theaters (“The very best between Poughkeepsie and Albany,” said Mulherin) and a do-over of a food court that now more resembles an Army chow hall.

Hull and Mulherin repeatedly spoke to “respecting the process.” They’re not about to attempt to bully Town of Ulster authorities into a sale-price assessment that could represent an 80 percent reduction from the current assessment. These savvy Southerners appreciate that every town official across the table is up for re-election this year. In politics as in business, first things come first.

There are in fact two domino theories in play here. Town officials are painfully aware, that if they give newcomer Hull a huge reduction in assessment, then everybody else on the commercial strip will be expecting something on the same order. Bottom line: bye-bye tax base. Worse, townsfolk will rise up in wrath at even the hint that their elected leaders might be thinking of giving away the store to foreigners.

Much-experienced in these kinds of negotiations — the group owns and operates some 28 other such properties around the country — Hull, holding his hands about two feet apart, says “we’d like to get from here to there.” Moving his hands closer, he suggests a deadline “within a year.”

I’m guessing those hands will be still moving around after November election day.

The company has a fall-back plan, of course. Revamping and reducing the mother of local malls to something approaching boutique size — with a huge theater complex and gourmet food court, a few anchors and specialty shops attractive to women shoppers — could be an attractive package for the Hudson Valley Mall.

 

Merger carrots

Municipal merger raised its familiar head at last week’s chamber of commerce meeting in Kingston, where County Executive Mike Hein suggested
Ellenville consider turning over the keys to the Town of Wawarsing. First impression: What, the ballyhooed Ellenville Million isn’t working?

As a carrot, Hein held out the possibility that Ulster County might win Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $20 million municipal consolidation contest should Ellenville agree to dissolve itself. These schemes get more fantastic all the time. We know, of course, that $20 million wouldn’t repave the streets of depressed Ellenville.

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Wawarsing Town Supervisor Len Distel wasn’t all that enthused. Neither was New Paltz Supervisor Neil Bettez, where merger talks raged for five years before he took office last year. “It’s back on the back burner,” Bettez told us.

I like Bettez. His is a calming influence after years of turmoil under former supervisor Susan Zimet and village mayor Jason West. Towns need time to pause, reflect and reset.

“As I see it,” said Distel, “the governor wants to consolidate or eliminate all the villages and towns and run everything out of the counties or the state. Now that’s a power play!”

Not that shared services aren’t a good idea. A few years ago, Saugerties merged its village police department with the town force, saved some money and improved services. Everybody seems OK with it.

As for Hein’s second state-of-the-county speech in little more than three weeks, he pretty much had said it all at BOCES in New Paltz. He just repeated most of it at the Kingston Area Chamber. I think Hein’s handlers need to schedule him better.

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