banksy1

        banksy2

A painting by world renowned graffiti artist Banksy was discovered early yesterday morning on the back wall of the AIDA owned building on Main St in Amsterdam. The discovery quickly set off yet another raging debate on whether colorful paintings have value or not.

“I don’t really know anything about arts and culture,” explained one member of AIDA, the organization charged with building the economic future of the city “I hear some people like this Banksy guy but I don’t see it.”

Banksy is known for covertly putting thought-provoking stenciled artwork on public and private property. Although his work is technically “graffiti” and illegal, his work has achieved national notoriety.

AIDA officials are reportedly debating whether to paint over the artwork or try to accommodate public calls for preservation.

“This issue is stupid,” asserted one local newspaper editor, “and I’ll write as many editorials as it takes until everyone agrees it’s stupid as well.”

Other residents expressed concern about how the controversy is perceived in the wider region.

“When communities fight to save art or history, or what not, I think it just looks bad to outsiders,” explained one nervous resident, “I think any type of debate scares people off. They don’t have debates in other cities, do they? I can just picture them all looking at us… and laughing at us… JUDGING US!!!”

“The public should not have a say in this,” added another resident in regards to the building owned by a public benefit corporation.

Some residents, while appreciative of the artwork, questioned Banksy’s choice to paint a cheerleader.

“Of all the things Banksy could have painted, why did he choose a cheerleader?” questioned another resident. “Cheerleaders glorify sports teams. I am not a fan of sports teams!”

Others took a different approach.

“The whole building should be torn down,” suggested another resident, “If you tear down one building, two will grow up in its place. That’s just how nature works.”

AIDA officials, not known for their sensitivity to the idea that arts, culture and history are integral parts of downtown revitalization, indicated they are inclined to cover up the painting, unless a certified professional can determine what the work might fetch at auction.

“That’s the only way to know something’s value,” stated another AIDA official, “is by how much you can sell it for. Not by how much people might enjoy looking at it.”

Stay tuned to this blog for more infallibly objective coverage as the situation develops.

I do not mean to offend anyone with these jokes (at least not too much), and I hope no one takes them personally. Happy Friday!

I’ll take today’s editorial in the Recorder as an admission that their previous editorial stance that the general public has “no say” in any of AIDA’s decisions was in error. Because obviously if the public should have a say in what plastic statues the Mayor buys with money that she has complete authority to spend, then why wouldn’t they also have a say in something far more important, such as how a public benefit corporation handles historic preservation? I have no doubt that once the editors realize this inconsistency, they will issue some sort of well thought out explanation or even a retraction, rather than take personal offense  and dig themselves even further into their entrenched position. Right.

bankruptcyI actually feel kind of stupid because it was just about  a week ago that I stuck up for The Recorder in response to someone trashing them, arguing that generally they keep their editorial opinions out of their regular articles. But soon after I said that, I stumbled upon probably the most egregious example of editorial slant that I had seen in some time in the September 18, 2013  article titled “City continues to weigh financial options.”

In that article, David Mitchell our city’s deputy controller, outlined four options for dealing with the city’s accounting problems: declaring bankruptcy, giving up city accounts to the state, hiring an outside firm to handle the accounting, or continuing on as normal, but fixing one account at a time until everything is reconciled. Mitchell specifically stated he recommended the last option. Now why he would even mention bankruptcy or giving up our accounts seems strange to me. Maybe he was just being thorough, who knows? But when asked directly if the city was in any immediate danger, he replied:

“From what I’ve seen, we should be able to meet our obligations as we go along,”

So what was the very first paragraph of this article?

“Declaring bankruptcy or surrendering the city accounts to the state have been outlined as possible options when it comes to restoring Amsterdam’s finances.”

Sure, this statement is technically correct. But it’s obvious that these options were only presented as last resort options. Isn’t it the media’s job to do at least some interpretation so that the reader understands the situation accurately? It is clear the deputy controller was not advocating bankruptcy and did not recommend it. But yet, there they are, the most sensational options, right at the top of the article.

I didn’t respond at the time, and Flippin wrote a good response to the article here.

But what prompted me to write is when I read one of the letters to the editors today bearing the headline “Eve of destruction”

It has finally happened: Amsterdam is on the brink of destruction. After all the posturing, rivalries in the council chambers, failed revitalization attempts, Amsterdam is faced with either bankruptcy or state control. At least that’s what last Wednesday’s edition of The Recorder stated

So mission accomplished! Whoever edited this story is directly responsible for this person’s completely incorrect understanding of the problem. Score one for the journalism profession!

The situation with the city’s finances is serious, but not insurmountable. The Recorder does the public no service by confusing the issue in this way. If there was ever a time we need accurate, objective coverage of city government, this is it. Frankly, I don’t think we are getting it.

In other news, I was not able to balance my checkbook today. As a result… I …….declare…..BANKRUPTCY!!!!!!!

I’ll leave you with a classic…

The publisher and editors at The Recorder – Kevin McClary, Kevin Mattison and Charlie Kraebel – are apparently ignorant of the definition of “Public Benefit Corporation.” In yet another scathing editorial about the mural situation released on Thursday, September 19, 2013, they assert:

The project has come to a grinding halt after Mayor Ann Thane and a few other city residents stepped in and demanded — even though they don’t own the building and have absolutely no say over it — that a mural on the second floor be preserved, claiming it has historic significance. (emphasis added)

That statement is at best a gross distortion.  No matter where you stand on this particular issue, you should not believe for a second that the public does not have any say in what AIDA does. Here are some facts:

AIDA was commissioned in 1973 as a Public Benefit Corporation.  The section of NY State law that recognizes AIDA reads:

For the benefit of the city of Amsterdam and the inhabitants thereof, an industrial development agency, to be known as the CITY OF AMSTERDAM INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AGENCY, is hereby established for the accomplishment of any or all of the purposes specified in title one of article eighteen-A of this chapter...Its members shall be appointed by the governing body of the city of Amsterdam. –  Source

Because AIDA is supposed to operate for the benefit of the people of the City of Amsterdam, board members of AIDA are appointed by the Common Council. That way, they are held accountable for the decisions they make.  Yes, AIDA has the authority to make the final decision on this matter, not the mayor. But as a citizen of the City of Amsterdam, whether you think the mural should be saved or not, you do absolutely have every right to have your say on this matter just as you do on any other matter of public policy. And the Common Council, as your elected representatives, should take everyone’s opinions into consideration when it comes to appointing new AIDA board members in the future.

iStock_000000782150XSmall

©iStock.com/Carol Gering

A couple of weeks ago, Fulton and Montgomery county economic development groups brought in the founder of J.M. Mullis – a project location specialist company – to tour the counties and give advice.

The press conference, as reported in The Recorder on September 07, 2013 , was a general guilt-tripping of cities and towns to be more “cooperative” in making deals for economic growth. The Recorder also followed up with an editorial that echoed the same sentiment.

Here’s the thing you need to remember – if you take a look at the types of businesses that Mullis is talking about, it’s really only one kind – BIG. He’s talking about businesses that employ 300-500 people, taking up anywhere from 200-300 acres of land, with 60-90 acres being “too small”.

Absent from this conversation are any ideas pertaining to small business development or downtown revitalization. It’s obviously not what this particular guy is into, and that’s fine. But I have yet to hear much of anything else from Montgomery county over the past few years. So for me, it’s just more of the same.

I have mixed feelings about big businesses, and I think that you should too. What big businesses give, they can also take away. Amsterdam’s current state is essentially due to big businesses coming in and building things up, and then big businesses moving away leaving their dilapidated buildings behind..

We all ought to think for a moment – what would be better – one big business moving to the area providing 500 jobs, or 10 medium-sized businesses moving in, each employing 50 people? Which situation would be more stable and sustainable?

If you stop and think about it – if you live in the city of Johnstown, Gloversville or Amsterdam, we already have everything we need to attract small to medium-sized businesses. We have the infrastructure (water, sewer, space) as well as the potential to develop an urban culture to attract young entrepreneurs. The towns have the space for the big businesses, but they lack the water and sewer infrastructure. And that’s why they need the cities to “cooperate” and extend their services.

Personally, I think we can do both. If deals can be worked out between cities and towns to bring in large businesses, then great. But for city residents, it’s important to remember that big businesses aren’t the only option for us, despite what you might hear from “regional” minded officials or experts.

A couple more points to consider…

First, here’s a dramatic illustration in a recent article from Better Cities and Towns which shows how low and medium rise buildings (of which our local cities have plenty of) can potentially generate anywhere from 10 to 100 times more tax yield per acre than your average “big box” development (ie Walmart and such).

Second, many news outlets have been reporting on statistics released by the US Census indicating that for the first time since the 1920’s urban growth has outpaced suburban growth. This is kind of a big deal. You can read analysis at a number of news sites, such as these…

Cities Outpace Suburbs in Growth (Wall Street Journal)
The End of the Suburbs (Time)

And home values seem to following the trend….

Urban Home Values Are Rising Faster Than Suburban Ones (The Atlantic Cities)

I will definitely explore some of the reasons behind these trends down the road, but I’m hoping this at least helps you see that our cities have far more going for them than what many would have us believe. If you’ve made an investment in living in a city, there is hope beyond that offered by big land hungry businesses. We don’t have to listen to a blaming and shaming if we decide that a deal with a neighboring town isn’t in our best interest. We have many more cards in our hands than we think!

Mayor Thane let loose with a barrage of criticism a few days ago over an apparent decision by AIDA to cover up the mural on the third floor of the building they own on Main Street. While I have yet to see an official quote from an AIDA representative on the issue, the Recorder ran an editorial the next day stating  AIDA appears poised to go with its original plan to cover up an old painting on the second floor . It’s the right thing to do.”

I’m hoping the old saying “It’s not over until it’s over” will apply here. But here’s why I think AIDA and The Recorder have got it wrong on this.

First – Just because the mural is in disrepair and the artist is unknown, does not mean it has no value. AIDA and the people who collectively write the Recorder Editorials (Kevin McClary, Kevin Mattison and Charlie Kraebel) just don’t seem to understand the value. Now everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and they have every right to share it. But I think it’s important for Amsterdam city residents to understand the perspective the editorial writers have and how that informs their opinions.

A case in point – Charlie Kraebel wrote a nice column back on September 7th about the benefits of living in the Fulton/ Montgomery County region. He talked a lot about the natural beauty of the area – the views of the Mohawk Valley, proximity to the Adirondacks, hiking, fishing, bike riding, as well as the character of the towns and villages. What I got from his column was that he is happy to live in a spot where he is able to enjoy these things that he values on a regular basis. I think that’s a wonderful perspective and I certainly value those things about the region as well.

However, I think it’s somewhat telling when he goes on to call the areas outside of downtown Saratoga Springs a “dump”. When I read that, I thought – if he thinks the city of Saratoga Springs is a dump, what must he think about most of Amsterdam?

I wonder if the editors have ever stopped to think just why a person willingly decides to live in a densely populated city like Amsterdam or Saratoga Springs and deal with all the problems that come along with city life? Or have they thought that maybe the everyday things that people in a city value might be a little different from those who choose to live in the rural areas?

I believe that many of the people who have chosen to live in this city value living in a community that is connected and that shares a common history and culture. Besides economic reasons, why else would we choose to deal with the blight, the vandalism, the noise, etc… ?

So what does this have to do with the mural? Cultural artifacts like the mural, as well as the homes, the buildings, parks, the community organizations and events, etc – all contribute to our cultural identity. It’s not about what the material things are worth on the open market, it’s about what the history and stories behind them say about the people who created them and how that shapes the continuing story of Amsterdam as a city. The mural is valuable because of what it contributes to our identity and culture. And our culture is one of the key “quality of life” reasons I believe people put down roots in a city rather than just visit. And that concept has very big implications when it comes to either the success or failure of our city to revitalize our economy.

To put it another way – what if hypothetically a developer purchases an area of land in Broadalbin, one containing fishing streams and hiking trails, etc, and decides they are going to bulldoze the whole thing to put in a strip mall? Residents would be outraged. They chose to live where they do because of certain things they value, and a reduction in that value is a loss to them. But I personally don’t fish, I don’t go camping. What if I called the controversy “silly” and urged the developer to “get back to work.” Wouldn’t that seem like a slap in the face?

I believe a majority (a slim majority, but a majority nonetheless) of Amsterdam City residents still value our urban culture and want to preserve it. Mayor Thane has championed this cause over the years, and her re-election should be irrefutable proof that this viewpoint is held by more residents than not. I think that the Recorder editors would serve their readers better by trying to understand this concept.

Second – Yes AIDA owns the building, but that does not mean that they have a right to do whatever they want. AIDA is a public benefit organization. It has authority to conduct its own affairs, but it is accountable to the public, and to the Mayor and Council who represent them.

I argued a while back that AIDA lacks the vision, skills and experience for developing our downtown, especially when it comes to developing a small businesses culture which is an essential element. Their strength and success is in managing the Industrial Park and I think they should stick to that. Mayor Thane argued at the time that AIDA was still the best option for overall economic development. I think it’s safe to say her opinion has changed. Should AIDA proceed as planned, I think there will be political consequences, and I predict the Mayor will most likely push for some changes to the makeup of the board and I think she has every right to do so.

If all else fails, I think we should preserve the mural digitally so the artwork could be restored digitally and perhaps reproduced and displayed at the Walter Elwood museum or City Hall or other such venue. Also, if possible, the murals should be covered in a way that does not ruin them, so that potential future developers can restore them if they want.

But if there are viable investors who understand how to capitalize on the cultural value of the mural, then those options need to be seriously considered, and I still hope they can be.

thirdwardThere’s a primary coming up this Tuesday for the Republican candidate for 3rd Ward Alderman. Running are Anthony Leggerio and Ron Barone. As is usual with our local elections, I’m searching high and low for an actual platform, rather than rhetoric for either of these candidates.

The Recorder ran an article on the candidates on September 3rd, 2013 from which I gleaned a few scraps of information.

I had to laugh because “high taxes” is the very first thing mentioned for both candidates – (Flippin called it). So both candidates are obviously concerned about it, as are we all.

So what are their ideas to lower taxes? ………………………………………………………………………  Buehler?   Other than the standard catch phrases all politicians use, I found no actionable plans put forth for either of them.

Barone has served for many years  as 3rd Ward Montgomery County Supervisor and currently serves on the AIDA board. So he’s got a long track record of government experience. While nothing especially stands out to me about his record, he strikes me as a pragmatic person, the most recent example of which is how he is trying to handle the current mural preservation controversy in a diplomatic fashion.

Leggerio is currently a DPW foreman and has worked for the city for 25 years. He has also previously served on the GASD Board of Education. My impression of Leggerio comes mostly from his outspoken comments on blogs and on Facebook and such. And from that I know he clearly has a long-standing grudge with Mayor Ann Thane. Several years ago he boycotted a veteran’s event citing Mayor Thane’s attendance as a reason. Every other post on his FB page seems directed at the Mayor personally. This might be a strategy, but to me it comes across as borderline obsessive.

Leggerio also cites his service in Air Force. I have tremendous respect for those who serve in the armed forces. However when someone scans their certificates of merit and posts them in a photo album titled “Pull Head Out Of Ass Ann” (and creates similarly themed captions for every single photo) that causes some concern for me.

I want someone on the Common Council who can constructively challenge the Mayor when needed. But I also want a council that respects each other and is functional.

Looking ahead to the general election, we have Debra Baranello running on the Democratic line. I like the positive approach that Debra takes on her FB page. I also know that she tends to support the Mayor’s vision. But again, I’m still searching for some specific ideas or initiatives she will bring to the council. I’m also wondering how she would handle taking a position that opposed that of the Mayor.

So based on my impressions, I would say  if elected, Barone would “get along” with the Mayor, Leggerio would “fight with” the Mayor, Baranello would “support” the Mayor.

What’s your take? Put it in the comments section. And as they say up north, remember to keep your stick on the ice!

Voting times and locations can be found here.

Update 9/9: Well obviously Ron’s off to bad start as far a getting along with Mayor. However, I would still maintain he would get along with her better than Tony.