Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Merry Christmas, Downtown Utica Style

Well the decorations are up-yeah, I know pretty sad, huh?

Now before I am accused of being negative, a "hater,"I love Downtown. Even though we have allowed so much of our history and architectural heritage to be swept away by irresponsible property owners and short sighted politicians, downtown still crackles with the urban energy that all cities possess.

So, while driving down Genesee St. the other night, I was once again subjected to the yearly unveiling of the tattered and threadbare "decorations" that should have long ago been sent to the landfill.

Why can't we do better? I always go back to the Utica as corporation theory. See, we are a 64 million dollar business and we present ourselves as some bankrupt, has been city.

Certainly, if the maintenance of the infrastructure of our downtown is any example of what to expect, I guess I should not be surprised by the pathetic holiday display that city hall is responsible for trotting out each year. Many of the street lamps that the half-lit wreaths adorn do not work either. And that's it. Nothing more.

Take a ride 40 minutes west to Syracuse. That is a city government that is self-aware enough that they have the dedication to give their citizens a reason to come downtown for the holidays. Oh, the mayor of Utica will wax on about how "we are broke," that we, "have to do less with more." Tired excuses from an exhausting parade of fools wasting time at 1 kennedy Plaza.

When will someone that is responsible for allocating our tax dollars realize that the City of Utica is a product that needs promotion. We need to polish up our "brand." In fact, we need to have a brand!

What do we want to be? A broken-down city with its better days well behind us? Today, the Mayor of Watertown attacked Utica on a radio show in that quickly went viral. So, Roefaro to the rescue. He was actually in city hall, sans tie, grabbing a soundbite defending "his" town. He is going to make it right. A little late, I think.

Too bad we are so busy defending ourselves that we refuse to see what may be wrong with our city. The mayor only talks about how great we are when we are attacked. City government celebrates the status quo and does nothing to change the narrative. And the debate continues. The lights stay broken. The Christmas decorations get put up yet another year and they still don't work.

Mayor-elect Rob Palmieri used the slogan during his campaign, "Utica deserves better." Let's hope that means better downtown maintenance and Christmas decorations that actually work!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Well, its here-Thanksgiving 2011, the start of the official holiday season.
And, considering how 2011 started, I sure have a lot to be thankful for!

First, I am thankful that my family and friends are healthy and all around to help me celebrate. With so much sickness, needless tragedy and heartache in the world today, to have wonderful friends and family is the greatest gift of all!

Here are some of the other things that I am grateful for:

I am thankful that Thornberry's has reopened as "Thornberry's Backstage."It was so weird last year to see the shuttered and lifeless remains of the once successful and bustling restaurant that I truly thought  was gone forever. Enter Mike Mahoney, whose talent and vision brought it back to life, this time for many more years to come!

I am thankful the Oneida Square Roundabout is as beautiful and successful as it is. Let's give thanks to the REAL person behind that vision, Mike Shamma of the regional DOT. His steadfastness and foresight has transformed Oneida Square. Lets hope it spreads to the rest of the city.

I am giving thanks today for Dave and Regina Bonacci, the latest in a series of investors to come downtown. Their Bleecker St. project is a magnificent example of what can be done to transform our city. Along with all the other visionary downtown projects-Strut, The Cobblestone Building, Piers and Blake, The Taylor and the Cook, Utica Roasters, Gerber's Grill, California Pizza, The Cage Sports Bar, The Stone Cellar, project developers that, in a time of economic hardship, have gone ahead and invested in our city to make their dreams come true. I am thankful for their dedication to my home town.

I am thankful that, in a year that started with great political upheaval, the BEST candidate is now the incoming mayor. When he was fired  by Roefaro in January along with my sister and I, Rob Palmieri could only dream of one day replacing the man who so callously and needlessly severed from public service a man who had devoted his entire life to the betterment of Utica. Well, he is set to be sworn in as Mayor of Utica in January. He will replace the man who fired him, and for that I give great thanks.

I am also thankful that Roefaro had the brains to withdraw from public life. Never in our history has a mayor so divided the city. Never in our history has a mayor treated his fellow citizens with such contempt by promoting an agenda that benefited his "friends and family."We have come out of a very dark period in our history. But, today the future looks bright, in part because the cronyism and underhandedness that has ruled the day here in Utica is about to evaporate with the termination of the current administration.

Finally, I am thankful for you, the readers of  this blog. My musings, observations and sometimes ramblings here have attracted a great audience. I hope that I have been able to bring you some insight into the inner-workings of our city and I respect your allowing me to share with you the experiences I have gained over the many years I have spent as a public servant.

Now, I am off to Albany with my Mom to enjoy a Thanksgiving feast at my sister's home!
Thanks for that!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Week In Review

WOW! What a week!

So much has happened, so many new roads to travel. The city is alive with new blood in city hall, new businesses opening, a palpable excitement that things are about to change-for the better this time.

First, let's talk about the election. It is apparent, even though the absentee ballots are not completely counted, that Rob Palmieri is the mayor elect. What an amazing change of fortune for him and the city!

When he was escorted out of city hall in January after having been fired by Roefaro, I knew that meant one thing-he would finally mount a campaign for the office. And, I knew he would be a formidable candidate. At first, the insiders wrote him off. They underestimated Rob's drive, ability and dedication to this goal.

In an unprecedented 5 man race, Rob came out on top. Now the real work begins. With a reported five million dollar deficit gifted to the city by Roefaro and his cronies, Rob will have his work cut out for him.

In other political races, it seems Tim Julian was finally and completely beat by Bill Morehouse for Common Council President. Good news for the city. The deficit was not created by Roefaro alone. Julian built the foundation by not making the tough decisions needed during his tenure as mayor. He frittered away our water trust fund by maintaining the status quo and rewarding HIS cronies with fat salaries and benefits (remember Al Pyleman anyone?) As a reward for that "gift", he asked the citizens to put him BACK in city hall! And the people spoke with a resounding NO!

In other events, Thornberry's, my old, beloved business, re-opened with Mike Mahoney at the helm. It's even more beautiful than ever, with great food and service. The former 257 Steakhouse opened this week as well. Now called "The Stone Cellar", it has also been tastefully redone and, although not yet serving food, it is sure to be a success!

I attended the Landmark's Society annual dinner meeting this past Thursday at Pier's and Blake, the fantastic, upscale steakhouse in the former Doyle Hardware building on Main Street. What a night! Vin Ficci and Stuart Bannatine, the owner/operators were there to receive a much deserved preservation award. Dave and Regina Bonacci attended as board members and honorees for an award received for their fabulous Bleecker Street loft/office conversion. After a night of delectable food and beverage, we closed the evening with the best chocolate martini ever!

As I said, what a week! Who ever said Utica has nothing to offer needs to spend some time with me. I will be happy to show you how to find fun and excitement in our little city!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thornberry's set to reopen Tuesday

Yes, its true-Thornberry's is going to re-open Tuesday for pre- theater dining. Now known as "Thornberry's Backstage Restaurant", you can enjoy the same great food in beautiful surroundings that you have come to know and love since 1995.

Does that sound like a promo ad? Well it should! I have been working very hard to find an operator since closing the restaurant back in May of 2010. And, it could not be just anyone. I wanted to find someone with the sensitivity to take what worked for so long and create a new, fresh experience with a nod to the past.

When my Dad and I opened the place, it seems ages ago, we both were committed to creating a dining spot that theater patrons could rely on for fast, affordable pre-show fare. Thornberry's thrived for those first couple of  years. In 1997, due to health concerns, Dad was forced to retire and we picked a close friend to buy his share of the company.

It's no secret that I did not always see eye to eye with this new partner. In spite of that, we were able to expand the business, double the seating capacity and contribute to the vibrancy of downtown. Sept 11, 2001 would change all that.

Overnight, corporate spending evaporated. Business crashed. We saw our income cut by a third. It was a very stressful, difficult time. Slowly, business returned. But it was nothing like the pre-Y2K years.

When the Stanley Theater announced its expansion plans in 2002, we were thrilled. An expanded theater with more shows would dramatically help our struggling business. Little did we know that the project would eventually contribute to our demise.

For close to three years, we were virtually cut off from downtown. Surrounded by a giant construction pit and a ten foot high chain link fence, people were not inclined to want to dine with us. Add to that the closure of the theater, with no theater patrons to rely on, we saw our business dry up.

In 2006 the NYS Department of Taxation decided to conduct an audit. That was the final nail in the coffin of Thornberry's. After weeks of dealing with a snarky state auditor, her conclusion was that  we did not pay enough sales tax. Using a convoluted formula that compares your business income to that of similarly sized operations, the state levied an additional 80 thousand dollars of, they claimed, unreported income! By the time they were through adding penalties and interest, it was up to 140 thousand dollars.

And, this mystery income was supposedly made during a period when the only patrons we had were the construction workers building the new stage.

By 2010 I had had it. We had been paying almost 1,500 a month to the state. By May of that year, we were told that they wanted the entire payment-no more monthly options. And after paying close to 50 thousand dollars back to the state, there was still a 140 thousand dollar balance.

It was like a loan sharking operation. I felt like I was dealing with the Mafia! When I appeared with my attorney and accountant at their downtown office, I was basically given no choice-close the restaurant or face the wrath of NYS. It did not take me long to make the decision.

After a couple of failed sale/lease deals and looming property tax and mortgage bills, I finally found an operator that was willing to revive this wonderful property. The close proximity to the stage door at the Stanley contributes to the new name, "Thornberry's Backstage Restaurant". The place has been redecorated, the decor and theme is similar and, thankfully, they chose to keep the name.

As the "landlord" I now have a great place to be proud of again. Some day I may even make a couple of bucks off the joint! But until then, I am happy to know it is in good hands and being taken care of like it was in the early years.

And I know that "Poppy Bob" is happy as well!

Thornberry's Backstage Restaurant is open for pre-theater dining, private parties and catering. It also serves dinner Friday evenings from 5-9.  Call 735-1702 for reservations.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Palmieri Apparent Mayoral Victor

On election day I was pondering the future of our city. Who would be the next mayor? As I have said many times, the mayor is the most important person in all of city government. Because Utica's charter gives the mayor a lot of power, it is really one person that can affect the destiny of our city.

As the day wore on, I thought of the possible outcomes of the balloting. I felt that the race was really between Palmieri/Cerminaro. Due to the fact that Democrats out number Republicans by a large majority in Utica, it seemed that Palmieri had an automatic edge. Anyone who follows Utica politics is sure to realize the folly of that statement! Nothing here is ever certain-especially elections.

The spoiler for Mike Cerminaro, as it turned out, was the fact that Cardillo stayed in the race. Most "good Republicans" are expected to close ranks after losing a primary and endorse the party's choice. Cardillo chose to soldier on and pursue his dream. That had a dramatic effect on the eventual outcome.

Palmieri and Cerminaro represent the last of the "old guard" political leaders of the late 80's and 90's. Along with former Common Counsel members such as the late Rodger Amodio, Barbara Klein, Roger Palek. (I also served for six years on the counsel with these folks), Palmieri and Cerminaro worked together many years on the Common Counsel. Rob was the only member of that group to have never run for mayor. We all did. We all lost.

It was also an unprecidented election in that there were a total of five candidates running. The vote split would affect the out come, but only in one way-Palmieri or Cerminaro?

No one ever really thought Sanita/Clemente actually had a shot at victory. Cardillo was a long shot as well. But their votes would make the decision about who would lead the city for the next four years.

And that split has apparently lead to Robert Palmieri being the peoples choice.

As a former candidate for the top position in city government, I know how difficult it is to mount a city wide campaign. These five men should be congratulated for their dedication to our city. Having such a large slate of candidates is a testament to the dire need for real leadership and dedication to the position that has been absent during the Roefaro administration. All five men articulated passion for Utica during the campaign and a desire to translate their vision into action. In the end, only one can be chosen. The choice was Palmieri.

Now its up to Rob to lead the city. Imagine, on January 13 he was fired by Roefaro and escorted by police out of City Hall. Today, he now replaces the man who fired him!

Only in Utica, folks. Only in Utica!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Election Day Is Almost Here-Will You Vote?

Well, the time has come folks! Election day in Utica is just two short days away. Will you vote?

In Tunisa, almost 85% of the population just voted for new leaders for the first time in their history. We will be lucky to have 20% of registered voters turn out.

This is a truly pivotal and important election. We have to select a leader from five candidates that are vying for the Mayor's office. All five of these men claim to have a plan to revive our city and bring us out of the darkness that has enshrouded our progress for so long.

Can they do it? Or is this just another ego-fest that soothes the insecurities of the kind of people that seek elected office in our town? You know the type-power hungry megla-maniacs that use the Mayor's office as a means to control, profit and preserve the status quo. Remember, the fish rots from the head down!

Take a close look at the platforms of each candidate and you will discover no real solutions being presented here, but rather each man is presenting himself as the person with the most experience and insight to solve our woes.

None of it will matter if you do not vote.

The margin of victory will come down to just a few votes. Make sure yours is in there.

See you at the polls!