Nov 27, 2007

It ain't necessarily so

Mr Andrew Brindisi, who runs a fine restaurantt with his own name on the door in downtown Saratoga Springs, is apparently a bit concerned with the rise in online shopping and its "devestating effect" on local economies. He is quoted in today's Saratogian as saying such.

Such a statement is not necessarily true.

For example: what if a huge portion of those online purchases were being directed to a net-retailer that is located within one's own 'burgh? In that case, the local economy is in fact GAINING from the trend to shop remotely, with new outside momey flowing into the city's money whirlpool. So, one would hope that there are an increasing number of virual retailers within those city borders as a way of taking advantage of this new age method of retail commerce, right? Maybe a forward-thinking economic development department would even initiate programs and incentives to encourage that sort of thing, right?

Unfortunately, the gentelman's comments just show the old school "Main Street" economy way of thinking that dominates the local mindset. Such a persepective will harm the future outlook for the well-being of Saratoga --- or any other community, for that matter.


Nov 16, 2007

An Exorcism in Saratoga -- election analysis

Dealing with Rabid Dogs

Plus: A political and sociological history

I am a lifelong member of the Democratic party, an example of what was used to be called an Apple Democrat: a believer in the party’s traditional mantra of level playing fields and equality while at the same time comfortably embedded in the global free market.

My family name appears in the earliest party rolls in the city of Saratoga Springs and I have consistently pulled the donkey lever in local, state and national elections. I have been serving on the re-election committee of one of the local party incumbents and have given informal advice to two others in recent months. I gleefully celebrated the historic 2005 sweep of all seven city offices, which gave controlling power to the Democrats for the first time in the annals of my native hometown.

So there I was on Election Night two years later, mingling amongst two hundred party faithful cheering on the mayoral hopeful as the results came into the room, district by district. Joining in, for sure, but at the same time feeling a sense of unease, disappointment, sadness and just plain weirdness. What’s wrong with this picture?

I was at the Republican's party on that evening, that’s what!

Six years into the Bush insanity, standing in John Sweeney’s former turf, surrounded by the sprawl & t-shirts crowd that I so despise, listening to them talking up their newly revitalized empire building plans, there I was. So, how could such an “it’ll never happen” moment actually happen; who or what is to blame for this craziness? That answer is very simple:

Valerie Keehn.

The incumbent mayor, allegedly a member of my very own party, succeeded in my doing the personally unthinkable. However, that is my burden to bear and one that I do not take lightly. I will get over it, I am sure.

But, Mrs. Keehn, who campaigned as The People’s Mayor, did much more than just drive this conflicted individual into the Holiday Inn to slug down some Heinekens with a bunch of guys he used to make fun of in high school. Indeed, she did much, much more damage than that. This political newbie single handedly (well, with her handlers) hit the Big Enchilada of city political mischief:

Control of the city council was handed back to the Republicans, reversing the 2005 sweep and the decades of momentum that was built up by the party’s progressives.

Quite the accomplishment, is it not? When this woman decides to get something done, she certainly knows how to leave her mark, which could be felt for many years to come. Unfortunately for the citizens of Saratoga Springs, this was her only real accomplishment during a two-year term in office that can only be described as an outright disaster.

To best understand the why & how to all of this, it is necessary to step back and take a brief look at the history --- both political and sociological – of the Spa City:

Saratoga's Changing Tides

• Saratoga Springs long operated as a small, stand-alone outpost in northeastern New York. Its local economy supported local families who in turn supported the local businesses and built deeply rooted neighborhoods.

• Its Health History & Horses motto best exemplified another core economic base -- tourism -- with the race course being a key driver.

• Political power in the city has long been held by the Republican party, which tends to be the case in towns that rely heavily on tourism and its related sectors of Main Street retail, lodging and real estate. Public policy has long been centered on supporting that focus.

• The waning status of the race course (and horse racing in general), which began in the late 1960’s, resulted in an overall economic downturn in the city’s fortunes. Buildings that played a role in earlier decades fell into disuse and disrepair and retailers abandoned downtown. The city’s population actually declined at tone point.

• A major federal highway infrastructure project – called the Adirondack Northway – played the primary role in reversing that damage. Completed in 1967, the four-lane road replaced Route 9 as the main artery in and out of the city. From that point on, it played an increasingly important role in Saratoga’s fate, specifically in two areas:

- By providing 30+ minute access to Albany, it became a ‘commuter’ option for workers to now reside in Saratoga.
- It shortened the drive from NY, NJ, CT and Montreal, thereby making the race course and the other tourist attractions more desirable to a wider audience

• The ‘commuter’ aspect is important, because it signaled the end of the city being a predominately localized economy. In a trend that continues to this day, more and more of the city’s professional class work outside the city boundaries.

• Despite Republican dominance, an occasional Democrat would win election to the five member city council. One of them was Thomas McTygue, who followed his father into heading the Public Works Department in the early comeback years of the early 70’s. While light on big-picture policy making motivations, McTygue did succeed in effectively managing his operation. While his beautification projects get the popular play, equally significant initiatives were undertaken and accomplished. For example: prior to McTygue, most of the city’s major road construction projects were farmed out to outside contracting companies. Beginning with the Grand Ave project in 1974, these efforts were brought in-house.

• In the early 80’s, another government investment –this one by New York state – would have a significant and impact on the city. This was the I Love New York tourism campaign, which included a huge Capital – Saratoga branding initiative featuring photos of the race course front and center, distributed around the world. The positive influence of this program is unquestioned, as the track reclaimed its former glory as the showcase of the Sport of Kings and attendance and visitor counts soared.

• As happens to many tourist destinations, the more people that visit, the more decide that “this little town might be a nice place to actually live in.” The stage was certainly set for that.

• This demand, combined with the financial enabler of hyper-rising property values in the metro New York region and elsewhere, created a new immigration into Saratoga. A predominately 50+ demographic sold their (or their parents’ estate) properties in the city and used the funds to buy the relatively cheap homes in Saratoga and its surrounding areas. The city and county population soared.

• Politically, this influx of new blood narrowed the head count between the two parties, as these new residents tended to be independent, liberal leaning or Democrat.

• This newly empowered independent/left/liberal/Democrat coalition shared one outstanding concern: that runaway real estate development (i.e., sprawl) at both the city and county level was threatening the city’s highly prized quality of life. For that, it increasingly blamed the local Republican machine, its influence and its membership.

• The flash point / rallying cry for this showdown occurred in 2004-2005, as the county Republican apparatus pushed through its massive water project, a huge public investment that would run a north-south pipe down the center of the county. All hell broke loose.

• The point person that put this issue front and center was Mr. McTygue. In council meeting after meeting, the long-time commissioner would recite the arguments against the city joining into the county project. In speeches lengthy enough to make Castro jealous and which became legendary among senior citizens that would gather around the audio casts, McTygue called this plan for exactly what it was: a taxpayer subsidy to the local real estate industry, giving them the green light (financially and otherwise) to put the county’s sprawl growth into hyper-drive. Granted, McTygue’s motivations may have been motivated from a city vs county ‘water control’ perspective (of which he admitted), but the overriding power play aspect -- highlighting the worst aspects of what Republicans are typically blamed for -– was not lost on the citizenry. It stuck.

• By the time the November 2005 elections came around, McTygue was so popular that the Republicans didn’t even dare run against him. A slate of newcomers rounded out the Democratic ticket, and lo and behold, they all won easily. With one exception, that is; the previously unknown candidate for Mayor, named Valerie Keehn, who barely squeaked into office along with her party running mates.

Such was the stage as set for the Democratic party to finally be handed the keys to the city of Saratoga Springs on New Years Day 2006. A fine day it was, complete with parties, toasts and celebration. After that, it was time to get down to business.

Folks, we have a problem

Right out of the gate, problems surfaced. The most visible was the fact that Mrs. Keehn knew nothing about properly chairing a meeting, which is her primary responsibility in the city’s so-called weak mayor format. The city council meetings became uncomfortable to even watch, and she struggled with procedural details. Being new to such a stage certainly gives some leeway, but she never seemed to get better at it. Amplifying the problem was the fact that Mrs. Keehn is not a confident public speaker, with a slight droning voice that sounds like she is about to weep at any minute.

Next was her appointment to the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Racing, certainly an important issue to a city with the premiere racing facility in the world within its confines. This should be a good thing, local representation by the city’s mayor. But then she opened her mouth and admitted something to the effect that “she really doesn’t have a real understanding of the thoroughbred racing industry.”

So, the city’s introduction to Mrs. Keehn in the first weeks of her administration are: a) she is incapable of fulfilling her number one on-the-job responsibility; and b) she knows nothing about the city’s most valuable asset. Maybe she really didn’t expect to win the election, some asked? But wait, it gets worse.

Those two governance mistakes were quickly followed by two political mistakes. The first was to remove Bill McTygue (brother of Tom and DPW deputy) from the planning board. Although certainly within her right and powers to do so (proposing of board appointments are the only powers held by the mayor that other council members don’t have under this form of government), politically it made no sense to exhibit such naked ambition against the fellow party member on whose coattails she was dragged into office in the first place. But as we were to see, it was a signal of her true ambitions.

The next blunder was to make a call for Charter Change, which if successful, would have converted the city to a more typical strong mayor system with a supporting legislative body put into place. Besides not being able to voice a rationale for such a change (the spin was “It’s what every other city does”), the fiercest criticism centered around the fact that Mrs. Keehn never mentioned the desire for such a referendum at any point in her campaign. Regardless of the merits of such an issue, the public take on the matter was Naked Ambition, Part 2, and it was easily defeated at the polls.

Next came the wild card of good old personality conflicts. Many observers viewed these misguided political actions as an affront to fellow council member Mr McTygue, including Mr. McTygue himself. McTygue, having a colorful and vocal personality reflective of his mixed Irish and Italian heritage, wasn’t going to let this nonsense sit. Given that the mayor had no policy initiatives to shoot at, his only target was to berate her publicly at the council meetings, at times in a rather demeaning manner for such transgressions as the inability to keep order and (again) the inability to actually conduct meetings in a proper fashion. This act had played before, as McTygue used the same script with previous mayors, so Keehn shouldn’t have been surprised. Then again, staging a public spat between yourself and a fellow Democrat is not good politics on McTygue’s part, either.

Simply put, Mrs., Keehn didn’t appreciate the street fighting man reaction from Mr. McTygue. Unable to match his verbal volleys and without seeing the need to concentrate on effective policymaking initiatives, Mrs. Keehn decided it was time for a Plan B; and it wouldn’t be pretty.

So was laid the groundwork for twenty months of conflict that would unravel the party. The blame game is in now full swing, with the popular consensus being “they’re both to blame.”

The Two-Year Trance

There is, in fact, plenty of blame to go around. But that’s too easy an explanation. One must call it like it is and point the finger right at the root cause of this fiasco. That finger goes to Keehn and her people, without feeling any need to be polite about it on this end.

Valerie Keehn was put in office for one simple reason: because her name was not Michael Lenz, the former Republican mayor and vocal supporter of the county water plan. The guy playing the bongos in front of Lillian’s could have accomplished the same thing if given the chance. No one heard of her before, and in fact no one needed to. She got a free pass, which most of us were glad to hand out.

But her opportunity was lost; lost in an ugly haze of power grabs and vindictive hate. The message of smart development and transparent and open government was exposed as the scam it was, all hat and no cattle. No brave new programs were ever proposed by Mrs. Keehn during her term. No definition of smart development or smart growth was ever given, so how could a vision of the city’s future even be put into action? Affordable housing never advanced. Open space land money sits in the bank. Downtown’s health is questionable, and nothing is being done about it. Ditto for the related parking issue. Ditto for anything else of consequence.

The only thing on her ledger is those precious board appointments. Get rid of Bill McTygue, and let’s clean it all up here, was the mantra. What we got was the appointment of an unqualified individual to a board, based solely on the fact that his father was the major campaign donor. She accidentally admitted to clearing it through the Senior during a debate!

Not to mention the little detail of her Ethics Chairman being of questionable – ethics - getting kicked off a few posts for ethical violations. She adopts the Village Idiot -- a Republican, retired military officer known for confrontational raids at council meetings, pro-choice rallies and anti-war protests – as a supporter, all while chanting the “We are the Progressive Democrats” message. Citizen particpation is held up as a banner; unless you question the mayor. At that point, your banner defines you as being part of a good old boys conspiracy. So goes the Keehn Paradox.

The Plan B -- Thanks, Karl

With this record of accomplishment – or lack thereof -- to run on, it’s time to go to the Karl Rove playbook. Ah, the Plan B arises. The mission: if you have weaknesses in your own portfolio, simply destroy your opponent‘s character as a way to compensate.

Does it work? Just ask John Kerry if it works: he’s no doubt still wondering how his Medal of Honor service in Viet Nam gets him branded as a traitor when compared to some rich kid draft dodger in Texas that actually went AWOL from his Air Guard troop during the same timeframe. Yes, it works.

So, after the perceived enemy (McTygue) Keehn and her attack dogs went. A 30+ year popular incumbent was now deemed a political machine. An oil spill in a garage is now likened to Love Canal or Bhopal as far as environmental consequences. Supporters are dispatched to hiding behind bushes, snapping photos of city workers coming and going . Not to mention the under-the-radar tactics of feeding rumor and innuendo of the most personal nature into the community’s newspapers, online forums and gossip mill. So they went, following the Rove playbook to the letter; except for one little mistake.

A Detail Overlooked

Unlike Mrs. Keehn, any good Saratogian DOES understand horse racing. If so, we know the meaning of the phrase “pace makes the race.” This notes that if two horses come out of the starting gate and proceed to fiercely go eyeball to eyeball, neck to neck and nose to nose with one another, they will both slow down dramatically towards the end.

In a match race, with just two horses, this strategy works -- one horse will put away the other and stagger cross the finish line to win the prize while the other usually gets pulled up.

Here lies the Keehn mistake. She went into match race mode, but she was in the wrong match race. Her Rove playbook served her well in putting down McTygue – it usually does. But she was ineligible for that race, and was then told to go run in her own match race against Scott Johnson, her actual Republican opponent for her actual seat. Johnson had no need to go into crash & burn mode on Mrs. Keehn; she had already spent herself in the previous race. He won, handily (to use another racing reference). So did two other Republican council candidates and one supervisor, all victims of the Hurricane Keehn. City power shifted, the worm turned.

The insanity of this strategy is mind boggling. But then again, so is the perspective on politics, government, business, economics or any other important subject of Mrs. Keehn’s most ardent supporters. I know that for a fact; for I have actually sat down with several of them and had that conversation. They haven’t a clue. No sense of the city's history, it's current dynamics, cause & effect of public policy -- none of it registers.

Where To?

What’s next for the Saratoga Democratic party? More bloodletting, no doubt, as Mrs. Keehn’s people refuse to go into the night while others will think it is necessary to somehow find a place for all factions within an organizational group-hug lovefest.

But, the task ahead should instead be viewed as what happens when you find a pack of 50 dogs that were not properly cared for and they are brought to the nearest animal shelter. After helping the animals lick their wounds, it’s time to make some tough decisions. Most of the pack can be put back into service, but only after the administration of some productive discipline. Others, however, are determined to be rabid and have no such prospects. They are pruned from the herd.

Such is the case for the party. Many individuals, from all the various camps, are in need of some of that productive discipline in order for the party as a whole getting back on track and moving forward.

But at the same time, a handful people -- that poisoned inner circle of the Keehn campaign; the ones responsible for this scorched earth campaign -– must be sent packing. Just like the rabid dogs.

It’s our only hope. Please, spare me any more nights out with a bunch of noisy elephants.



Nov 15, 2007

Big Night Out for Congressman Kick Ass

Oh yeah: two things on the John Sweeney deal:

1) Surprised? Ha!

2) Why isn't the 24yo female passenger facing charges? For those of you unaware; certain media outlets are reporting that she was allegedly found placed on former Congressman Kick Ass's lap when they were pulled over, possibly the cause of the lane-swerving episode. Conflicting reports raise the issue of what specific portion of her body was on Mr Sweeney's lap.

Now, I have no objection to this type of activity going on in a car, mind you. My only problem is that it should't be happening in a MOVING car.

So, why isn't she being cited with some sort of endangerment (or similar) charge? Any lawyers out there want to help us out here on this?

-------- Follow-Up to the Above (Nov 19) ---------------

We posed the following to the NYS Troopers'Public Information Officer on 11/15/07:

Dear Sir/Madam:

In relation to the recent JOHN SWEENEY arrest, we propose the following question:

* If, as reported, Mr Sweeney's passenger was discovered to be sitting on his lap when pulled over by the NYS Troopers, are there not any charges that SHE could / should receive?

After all, such an action on her part creates an incredibly dangerous situation.


The Response, received today:

These purported actions were not witnessed by our Troopers and are not part of our official report. These unsubstantiated allegations were never reported to the media by our agency.

NYSP - Public Information Office
1220 Washington Ave., Building 22
Albany, N.Y. 12226
(518) 457-2180
(518) 485-7818 fax

Now this raises some interesting questions, does it not? Hence, we submitted this follow-up question today:

Thank you for the repsonse

Final questions:

- If the word "sitting" is taken out of my query, would that effect your repsonse?
- Specifically; was the woman in any type of contact with Mr Sweeny when pulled over ?
- What is the official reaction, then, to this report by The Times Union?:

Ever since reporters first learned about Sweeney's arrest, there has been a lot of curiosity about the account of state troopers that a woman was on Sweeney's lap when he was pulled over. The troopers hadn't seen her at first, they said; they were startled to realize there was a passenger in the car, along with the driver.


We await...


The unfortunate demise of SEDC's CEO

I have long been viewed as a 'critic' of the AMD @ Luther Forest chip fab project. Such a characterization is an over-simplicifcation of my opinions on this complex subject, but then again, we live in a world of simplification and sound bites.

In a nutshell (look, even I can over-simplify), here's where I have long stood on the matter:

- A chip fab being built and located in the region, employing many hundreds of people, is a good thing. A VERY good thing.

- Working to attract such a project is a worthwhile endeavor.

- Such an endeavor is well within the mission of Saratoga Economic Development Corporation.

- But the goals of a Saratoga - based economic development organization might not necessarily be in the best interests of the greater Capital Region or New York state as a whole. Hence, the question of whether the location of this plant at the designated location being a good example of proper regional planning or not is a legitimate concern to be raised and discussed. But it wasn't.

- Furthermore, I believe that while it is proper to direct economic development incentives towards target industries, I get concerned when they are directed and granted to individual companies, as is the case with AMD.

- I also believe that a chip fab -- while having a "high-tech" image in the public mindset, is in reality, primarily an old-world type of manufacturing business. Such businesses/industries are driven by technologies and processes that were developed elsewhere and therefore do not play into the 'Innovation Age' economic world order, which is where we need to be directing our regional development efforts.

- While the economic multiplier benefits of a chip fab are indeed significant (again: I'm all for a local chip fab), they are insignificant when compared to more enlightened and proper regional development inititatives.

- Given that POV, I get concerend and disheartened when the AMD chip fab is held up as the poster child of the Captial Region / Tech Valley / NYS's economic development initiatives.

That's been my position since Day One. I've taken hits for it (public and private; business and personal); but I have also learned that I am far from alone in this thinking within the Tech Valley business community.

I know that this stance has put me in disfavor with the good folks at Saratoga Economic Developement Corporation over the past couple of years. That's fine, and I can understand why. I also believe that if they better understood my reasoning, such divisiveness would be minimized. For that, I take the blame.

Which brings us to this week's news; of the group's longtime CEO resigning just days after his arrest on a well-publicized DWI allegation in the Spa City. Given the popular theory that our two camps are philosophical opposites (which we aren't), many have asked for my opinion on these related events. Again, my over-simplification:

- The gentleman's tenure at SEDC should be considered a grand success; given the very specific group mission and his charge from his own managing Board of Directors. As said, even though I raise certain concerns about his landmark project, that project fits squarely into SEDC's wheel house -- and SEDC is his Report-To, not a know-it-all like me.

- This week's unfortunate incident should not become part of his historical legacy. It is for that reason I elect not to even mention the gentleman's name in this posting; thereby doing my small part NOT to connect him with the phrase 'DWI' in search engine directories that will last deep into the future.

- Furthermore, I am disappointed that the gentleman felt obliged to resign from his position because of his arrest. Would he have felt the need to do the same, if he had been arrested for speeding 85 in a 35 mph zone, for example? Would the public be expecting of such in that scenario? After all, excessive speed is a larger cause of highway deaths than alcohol impairment. But that's a discussion for another day, on another forum.

For now, let us conclude that no one feels real good about this week's turn of events. Certainly not his alleged chief critic.



Nov 7, 2007

Customer Pricing --- fad or trend?

Some detailed data is starting to emerge on The Grand Experiment of digital music delivery. I refer, of course, to the "pay what you want" system put in place for Radiohead's In Rainbows release of superb progressive rock.

Here's what we think we know:

- Approximately 2/3 of those that downloaded the offering paid nada -- zip.

- The remaining 1/3 paid an average of $6 each.

Success? Failure? It's being played up as the latter, but we're not so sure.

The math says that the average purchase price for ALL the downloads is $2 each. That doesn't seem like much, but consider this:

a) This isn't the physical deliver world we're talking about here. There are no costs for creating, packaging and shipping the jewel-cased CD's to retail stores around the globe. Or paying the freight to ship back the unsold copies, either.

b) How amy of those 'freeloaders' were not really interested in Radiohead to begin with, but instead just caught up in the hype and in the "gimme somehting for free" aspect? The guess here is that this subset is huge, and therefore should not be considered as 'lost paying customers.' In fact, many of them are now turned on to a roup of which they were not familair, and are now prospects to by the back catalog of the band.

The above data is strictly 'percentages' -- we dont yet know the total numbers of people involved.

Regardless, it is very interesting. Could it be the start of a widespread trend? Could be; today we noticed that one of our favorite magazines -- Paste -- is now on board with a similar program.

This bears watching...