SARATOGA SPRINGS — The city’s recreation center was renamed Thursday in the honor of the former mayor who inherited a $6.5 million bond authorization to build the facility — but without a plan to make the project a reality.
The well-used facility on Vanderbilt Avenue is now the Scott T. Johnson Recreation Center, an homage to the three-term mayor who served from 2008 to 2013.
Shovels were nowhere close to touching ground when Johnson took office, he said Thursday. There were filing cabinets of studies and proposals, but no architectural plans had been done, nor was there a chosen site.
Johnson said he made it a priority to get the project done, and with the help of many, including Recreation Commission Chairman Derrick LeGall, the city opened the 33,000-square-foot multipurpose facility in 2010.
The city’s recognition of Johnson was arranged by Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan, who did not seek re-election and is leaving office this week. Madigan said she wanted Johnson to receive his due before she left office.
LeGall presented Johnson with a plaque and the center lobby, behind the front desk, has been branded the “Scott T. Johnson Recreation Center.” Two additional signs will go up, including one on the side of the building for motorists to see from the main drag.
“We had a lot of battles getting it done,” Johnson said. “We persevered and we prevailed. It was really designed to serve all ages of our population here in the city, from kids to seniors. And we designed things specifically for that in the program itself, in the building, and that’s been a big success.”
Many residents were against the project during its early stages, particularly the chosen location, near a public housing authority community, Johnson said.
But some if those detractors have since told Johnson they were wrong — that the chosen location was appropriate because of how many people it is able to serve, according to Johnson.
“It’s truly accessible to everybody,” he said. “You can walk here. You can bike here. It’s on the city bus route. If we can’t make it accessible, what good is it?”
Johnson said he grew up in the neighborhood, giving him an awareness of some of the challenges neighborhood children go through, and their need for a centrally located recreation center.
“When I took office, we were looking at Weibel Avenue, and I was adamantly against that because that’s too far out of town,” he said.
The former mayor said one of the things he likes about the facility is its open gym time that’s available to neighborhood kids.
Looking back on the bond authorization, Johnson said, “as a conservative, fiscal person, I didn’t think it was right to bond something and have the taxpayer paying for it without delivering the product.”
A retired trial lawyer who owns Sperry’s Restaurant on Caroline Street, Johnson said he’s humbled by the acknowledgement.
“Anytime you have something named after you, it’s a surprise,” he said. “It’s an honor. But totally unexpected. It makes you smile. I still smile when I drive by here or walk in for an event of any sort. It’s that touching to me that we were able to accomplish this. And we did it on time and on budget.”
Rec center programs
The rec center has four courts for basketball and volleyball, nine pickleball courts and a racquetball court.
About 15,000 people a year drop in or participate in programming, the center’s administrative director John Hirliman said.
Basketball is the center’s biggest program, with more than 400 kids, he said. It also runs a day camp called Camp Saradac, along with a variety of summer clinics for tee-ball and baseball.
Its multipurpose rooms are used for community meetings and an assortment of programs such as tai chi, Zumba, and even knitting and drumming, Hirliman said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a big demand for recreation programs, and the center’s participation numbers have grown since it started last year, Hirliman said.
Madigan, who joined the ceremony virtually, spoke of how the facility was useful for city officials for emergencies such as the 2018 lightning strike of City Hall that displaced workers. It’s also been used for families during winter- and heat-related emergencies.
Madigan said she’s spoken to LeGall about how the commission might want to start thinking about working with the new city council leadership on a capital plan that ensures the buildings stays structurally sound, and maybe explore an expansion.
“There’s a few things like showers and other facilities that maybe the building could use,” the departing commissioner said.
“I know that Mayor Johnson did what he could for the building, up against a lot of resistance,” Madigan said. “But that resistance has completely dissipated. I don’t think there’s anyone in the community that doesn’t take this is a phenomenal facility.”
Madigan said Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco has assured her that a dedication for Johnson will be held in the spring, when it can be held outdoors and in hopes that the pandemic recedes by then.
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or 518-419-9766.