SCHENECTADY -- Bringing people back to downtown Schenectady was a major issue during Albert P. Jurczynski's first term as mayor, and in 1999 he came up with an idea that seems to get better each year.
The "Tour of Lights," a free event which puts senior citizens on buses and takes them around the city to view Christmas decorations, is being presented for the 20th year by the former mayor. Things start at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Key Hall next to Proctors, and after a bus tour of just over an hour the seniors are offered free drink and food back at Key Hall.
"We're already filled up with 215 reservations," Jurczynski said Monday afternoon. "We had 188 last year and that had been the most people ever, so it's really still popular. For some of these seniors, it's the best part of their Christmas."
While the exact route isn't certain yet, at least four buses will leave Key Hall at 6 p.m. and head toward the Upper Union Street neighborhood.
"Then we'll get on Balltown Road and head into the Woodlawn area," Jurczynski said. "We'll get on Kings Road and then go over the railroad tracks into Rotterdam, and then to Mont Pleasant and back downtown to Key Hall."
Included in the trip will be a ride down Emmett Street in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood where many Guyanese homes are elaborately decorated for the holidays. More than 2,000 Guyanese moved to Schenectady during Jurczynski's two terms as mayor from 1996 through 2003.
"A lot of the Guyanese do an exceptional job of putting up Christmas lights," Jurczynski said. "They are great at decorating their houses, and some of their homes are the highlight of the tour."
Proctors has been part of the program since 2013, and its help along with Mazzone Catering, Catholic Charities and others has made the event an attractive draw for seniors and their families.
"We have some great corporate citizens in Schenectady, and when Philip Morris and Angelo Mazzone got involved it just got better," said Jurczynski. "We also use CDTA buses. Schenectady ARC has also been involved, and since 2013 ShopRite in Niskayuna has been providing food. There are a lot of people helping us out to keep this a free event."
While Jurczynski's hard work has kept the event going, he gives former Holiday Inn general manager Kevin Johnson credit for coming up with the idea.
"Kevin told me about how the mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin used to do something like this, and I thought it sounded like a great idea," said Jurczynski. "Since it was Kevin's idea we started out doing this at the Holiday Inn. It was popular back then in the first year. I think people appreciate the Christmas spirit. Helping other people out, seniors, is something that resonates with everyone."
Back then, Jurczynski recruited some of his workforce at City Hall to volunteer their time at the event.
"Back when I was mayor I could make a phone call and people were willing to help out," he said. "These days I'm just Private Citizen Jurczynski, but now I get people calling me asking me, 'Hey, what's up?' They want to know what we're doing this year, and they want me to know they're all on board again."
Jurczynski has said that this is his last year running the event. The law firm of Martin Harding and Mazzotti in Schenectady is taking over the Tour of Lights.
"Yeah, but we're not letting Al go anywhere," said Paul Harding, managing partner at the firm. "He's been doing this for a long time, and he's going to be with us next year, guiding us every step of the way. It's not a political thing. It's just a great event that he's committed to, and when said he wanted to pass the baton to us, we told him we would be honored."
Harding has been to the event the last two years as an observer.
"I've seen a lot of folks at this event the last two years, and they're all having a wonderful time," he said. "For some of these seniors this is their Christmas. It's the highlight of the season. I've been friends with Al a long time, and we're going to try to do as good a job as he did."