Schenectady County

Stratton appointments to downtown panel disappoint some

Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s five appointments to the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. have not b
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Mayor Brian U. Stratton’s five appointments to the Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. have not balanced the board’s mix of big and small business owners, upsetting some owners who say their economic revitalization agency ignores businesses at the outskirts of downtown.

Stratton had promised after last November’s election that he would consider balancing the DSIC board by adding more small business owners, particularly from the edge of downtown. But in his new appointments, announced this week, he chose to reappoint four existing members and get rid of none of the controversial appointees he had already named.

He reappointed board President Karen Zalewski-Wildzunas, a senior vice president at Key Bank who works in Saratoga; Richard Antokol, a downtown State Street attorney; Janet Hutchison, the owner of Open Door Bookstore; and city Councilwoman Margaret King, associate dean for student development at Schenectady County Community College.

One small business owner was so unimpressed by those choices that she said Stratton was deliberately stocking the board to keep it under the control of the Democrats.

Kathy Fitzmaurice, who owns the Katbird Shop on Liberty Street and says she receives no benefit from DSIC despite being required to pay for membership, said the agency is “obviously” controlled by Stratton’s Democratic Party.

“And it shouldn’t be,” she said.

Cathy Russell, who runs the Night Sky Cafe on Union Street and says she’s often ignored by DSIC, offered a more optimistic viewpoint. She said three of Stratton’s four reappointees were good choices.

But she questioned why the mayor picked Zalewski-Wildzunas, who doesn’t work downtown.

“Why is she running the board in Schenectady? Maybe she’s good, but maybe she should be running the board in Saratoga,” Russell said.

However, both small business owners praised Stratton for appointing one new member, Don Leva, who owns a small newsstand business across from City Hall.

To make room for Leva, Stratton replaced Dee Earle, who was the director of sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn on Nott Terrace. Earle had transferred to a different Holiday Inn, outside the city.

Stratton had removed Leva from the board in 2005, saying he wanted to put in “my own people,” according to published reports. He said Wednesday that returning Leva to the board would give DSIC a small business owner’s viewpoint.

“He and I might not see eye-to-eye politically but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right for the job,” Stratton said. “I think he offers some alternative points of view and is a representative of the small businesses.”

He said Leva’s appointment was a response to owners’ complaints about representation on the board, but Fitzmaurice said the mayor missed the mark.

She had hoped Stratton would appoint owners from the outskirts of the downtown, rather than the Jay Street=State Street hub.

“It still doesn’t address the problem — the representation still isn’t there,” she said. “It’s only right — if I’m paying, I should have a say.”

However, she said Leva’s appointment was a good beginning, since he is a small business owner, even though he isn’t from the outskirts.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Fitzmaurice said. “You can’t expect to get change in a couple meetings with the mayor unless you have more clout and contribute a lot more to his campaign — and you can quote me on that.”

Russell disagreed, saying the mayor’s choice was a good response to her complaints. She said Leva should be able to offer the sort of input that owners like her need, even though his business is in the heart of downtown.

“I think it just needs to be somebody who’s trying to make it down here, a little guy. Doesn’t have to be someone from the outskirts,” she said.

Stratton said that was the impression he got when he spoke with downtown owners.

“I think overall the message I heard was, ‘small business owners,’ not owners from a particular geography,” he said.

He said he may add more small business owners soon. He is still considering possible replacements for Villa Italia owner Bob Mallozzi, who recently resigned.

“We can look for diversity in the board with that appointment,” Stratton said. “It’s a work in progress. I am reaching out to the small business owners.”

He added that he is also planning to talk with Stephen Waite, the developer of the Big House project. Waite, an Albany attorney, has not yet opened his downtown restaurant and club but has held a seat on the board. That seat might be better off in someone else’s hands, Stratton said.

Complaints about Stratton’s appointments came to a head last fall, when many business owners said the DSIC board is unresponsive, ignores property owners outside the heart of the downtown, and does not offer any valuable services in exchange for its mandatory special tax. Some called for DSIC to be disbanded or recreated as a business improvement district.

But when Stratton told them he might balance the board by adding small business owners or owners from the outskirts, some owners said they would be satisfied.

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