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Barbara Lombardo writes about journalisml, local news and anything else that strikes her fancy. She is executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News, sister papers in the Digital First Media family. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Keep a good thing going

Barbara Lombardo, Charlie Kraebel
and Mike O'Sullivan, executive editor, city editor
and publisher of The Saratogian, The Record
and the Community News wore Pink Sheet shirts
to take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Photo by Chris Brown.
Many years ago, when the only person I’d heard of having ALS was Lou Gehrig, the aide of a longtime local assemblyman came down with the disease.  This vivacious middle-aged man was helplessly bedridden, his mind sharp while his body quit on him. Over the years, every now and again I’d learn of someone losing a close friend or relative to ALS, including the fairly recent death of a friend’s sister-in-law.

Suddenly, ALS awareness has gone viral thanks to social media and the ice bucket challenge. In just three weeks and a day, the ALS Association has received $41.8 million in donations, including gifts from 739,275 first-time donors. During that same period last year, from July 29 to Aug. 21, it received $2.1 million.

The number of new donors is as astounding as the amount of money, when the ice bucket splash has dried up into old news. The key will be to keep giving.

“ALS was first found in 1869 by French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, but it wasn’t until 1939 that Lou Gehrig brought national and international attention to the disease,” the website notes.

It’s taken 75 years for something -- the ice bucket challenge – to return ALS to the national spotlight.

ALS stands for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease that prevents the brain from telling the body’s muscles what to do.

I thought it was a great idea when I first heard of the challenge. But being a woos, when my friends Dennis and Debbie Murphy took the challenge and Dennis challenged me, my first thought was, “Couldn’t I just make a donation?” Then I decided to go for it. And when it turned out Publisher Mike O’Sullivan and City Editor Charlie Kraebel had been challenged as well, we agreed to don our Pink Sheet shirts and do it together. Mike’s son Kevin accepted (a little too gleefully, if you ask me) the task of dumping the ice water.

It was a little cold and wet, but it was fun — and quick.
John Gray made a good point in his column this week when he admonished people whose videos didn't say a word about ALS and acted as if it was all just a joke about ice water. His lead was no joke: His mother died of ALS in their video. 

I think we did it OK in ours. I challenged Maura Pulver, the owner of Five Points Grocery, my corner store; Police Chief Greg Veitch; Marquita Rhodes, as incoming president of Soroptimist International of Saratoga County (or you may know her from the Albany Business Improvement District); and my son David.

I think I even beat Derek Jeter to taking the challenge, though I think he might have reached a few more people. You think?  

The challenge captured people’s attention, thanks to the power of social media. With or without the ice, let’s remember next year.

You can print out a form to donate, go to, or mail a check to The ALS Association Gift Processing Center, PO Box 6051, Albert Lea, MN 56007.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Clubhouse? Grandstand? Mysteries of Saratoga Race Course revealed

Saratogian Ad Director Barbara Fignar at an early breakfast
Friday at Saratoga Race Course, where you can watch horses
work out and enjoy a meal. You can just go right to rail or
sit in the boxes without eating, too.
The New York Racing Association has done a good job this season enhancing the track-goers’ experience at Saratoga Race Course, with such things as better TVs in the picnic areas and a friendly, helpful demeanor from name-tagged employees.

But understanding what’s what and how to get there is still something of a mystery, as I was reminded recently when talking to new newsroom staffers and first-time track visitors.
So here’s a quick primer.
When you go to the track you have two choices: Grandstand admission for $5, or clubhouse for $8 ($10 and $15 on Travers Day); kids 12 and younger are free.
Grandstand is basically general admission (and should be called that, for clarity’s sake). It gives you access to most everywhere on the grounds, from right up to the rail at the races, to half the seating areas, to the huge backyard with all the picnic tables and the paddock area where they saddle up the horses.
Clubhouse admission gets you up to the rail closer to the finish line, to about half the seating areas, and to the reserved dining just past the finish line.
Neither admission gives you a seat in the stands.
The long area of covered seats is actually divided into two areas, called the grandstand and the clubhouse. The difference: the grandstand section is accessible with grandstand/general admission and the sections are in the second half. Meanwhile, the clubhouse area is basically divided into two sections: the regular pull-down seats with sections in the first half of the alphabet and the “boxes” with five wooden chairs that are sold in advance for thousands or doled out as needed by NYRA to horse owners, politicians or celebrities. The dress code for the regular pull-down seats is casual, whether in the grandstand or clubhouse areas; the clubhouse boxes are where men and women are best-dressed by regulation. 
To get one of those seats, you purchase them well before the season begins through a NYRA lottery system or you buy from what’s available on a given day, as explained at
There are lots of benches around, and picnic tables, and people generally respect bench spaces that are informally reserved with a Pink Sheet or other newspaper. People also bring folding chairs.
I picked up a nice map of the grounds at the track information booth last weekend. For an out-of-town colleague coming to the track with her two kids for the first time next week, I recommend watching the horses circling and getting saddled in the paddock area, looking at the brightly colored jockey uniforms through the windows of the Jockey Silks Room, watching races from the grandstand, maybe catching a race at the rail if they can get up to the fence, and enjoying the musicians at the Gazebo Stage, where last Sunday Big Medicine was playing to an appreciate crowd when I wandered by.

Friday, August 15, 2014

5 Seconds of Summer coming to SPAC in 2015

5 Second of Summer coming to
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Aug. 26 -- 2015!
My membership to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center brought me a surprising mailing this week: a chance to buy seats for the band 5 Seconds of Summer — for their Aug. 26, 2015 performance.
Yes, 2015.
The Australian pop-punk  boy-band (confession: I had to Google them) will be touring next summer. As a member, I have until Tuesday to order up to two inside seats (at $69.50 or $49.50, both limited to rear orchestra and center balcony) and up to two lawn tickets ($25).
Another confession: I think I’ll pass, even though I’m running the risk of getting shut out a year from now at a show that could be huge.
The only thing I book a year in advance are doctor’s appointments.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Happy 1st Birthday, Northshire books in Saratoga

Jennie Grey took this picture earlier this week
 in the expansive children's section at Northshire Bookstore,
which is celebrating one year in Saratoga Springs.
I love the lead to reporter Jennie Grey’s story this week aboutNorthshire Bookstore’s first year in Saratoga, which, she wrote, “has whipped by like the chapters of a late-night page-turner.”
So true. It’s hard to believe Northshire (and the building it’s in smack in the middle of Broadway) is only one year old, so great an impact has it had in the city and surrounding communities.
The store is one of the best things to happen to downtown Saratoga Springs in recent memory, and that’s saying a lot, considering how many terrific things you can find there. The independent, family-owned operation with a fabulous reputation for its Manchester, Vt., shop, jumped right into the community with its diverse offerings and seemingly endless stream of visits by a wide-range of authors, from national to intensely local.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard Russo; others were enthralled by Anne Rice and thrilled to meet Hillary Clinton; I had fun at an in-store cooking demonstration one day led by Annette Nielsen. The variety and quantity of events are amazing.
“We are happy to be a part of the Saratoga Springs community,” owner Chris Morrow told Jennie Grey. “Independent bookselling is a tenuous effort in the best of times, so it is important to be in a supportive community that appreciates our commitment to quality, enrichment and literacy.”
They are not just good business people, they are good neighbors. I am so grateful to them and the local people who helped them make the logical leap to Saratoga Springs. And I hope we all do our part to help keep them in business for years to come.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Please tell CDTA where buses are needed -- and aren't

The Capital District Transportation Authority reported this week what my neighbors sitting on their front porch could have told them months ago: the No. 473 goes by every 20 minutes every day with rarely anyone on board but the driver. From early in the day to late into the evening, the full-size bus chugs along from its route connecting Skidmore College (out of session since May) to downtown and up Jefferson Street to the racino, where it turns around to repeat the lonely route.
I'm a huge proponent of public transportation, used wisely. It's about time CDTA took a hard look at the well-used and under-used routes -- and did something about them.
The documented travel is a good first step. The routes from Wilton through Saratoga Springs to the county seat in Ballston Spa fills a real need. Less-used routes needn't be abandoned entirely if there's a need. But it might be more cost-effective to subsidize a few taxi rides than to run full-sized, empty buses hour after hour.
Check out the report and let the CDTA know what you think.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Secret Gardens Tour this Sunday -- be inspired!

I’m no gardener, but I know a beautiful one when I see it. And I’ll be exploring 11 of them in and around Saratoga Springs this Sunday, July 13, for the 20th annual Secret Gardens Tour.

Hope you will, too.

The forecast is warm and sunny. Perfect!

Full disclosure: I’m a former chairwoman and currently handling publicity for the event as a longtime member of the organization that presents it – Soroptimist International of Saratoga County.

Truth is, the Secret Gardens Tour really is a fun event and the gardens are fabulous.

The creative gardens represent a mix of urban and rural settings, including Palazzo Riggi, the North Broadway home of Michele and Ron Riggi and a number of gardeners who have invested years of sweat equity and loving care into their personal oases. Sun, shade, water features, tiny spaces, sprawling property -- a great variety. To read about the gardens on this year’s tour, check out The Saratogian article and photos.

I always come away inspired and full of ideas, which I plan to implement someday. Not Sunday. Someday. Meanwhile, I simply appreciate the imagination, knowledge and hard work of others.

It amazes me that people can create and maintain these wonderful gardens, and then so graciously and proudly open them up for hundreds of people to enjoy. I can’t thank the owners enough. They are doing it not just to showcase their gardens, but to support good causes.

Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the tour, if still available. Tickets may be purchased in advance at all four Cudney’s Cleaners retail locations (visit for addresses and hours); or at the Saratoga Springs Visitor Center, 297 Broadway, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday and beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. The gardens will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The event is a major fund-raiser for Soroptimist International of Saratoga County, whose mission is to improve the lives of women and girls locally and around the world. The Saratoga club has provided more than $20,000 a year in awards and grants for local programs, such as Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County’s Project Hope and Power, scholarships for local women heads of households obtaining a college degree, and initiatives to provide health care, clean water and education in the third world. You can learn more at There's information about joining, too.

Putting on this tour is a huge project for Soroptimists. While most of the heavy lifting is literally done by the garden owners, Soroptimist members and friends invest lots of time ahead of and on the day of the tour to provide an enjoyable experience for garden lovers and make this fund-raiser a success.  

By the way, if you buy a garden book at Northshire on Saturday or Sunday and mention the tour (whether or not you’re going on it), they will donate 20 percent of the sales to the tour. Likewise, enjoy a meal at Forno Bistro or Boca Bistro on Sunday and they’ll donate 30 percent of your tab if you mention the tour.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Seeing Paul McCartney in concert: I want to hold you hand!

Paul McCartney’s still got it.

McCartney from far side of sold-out Times Union Center.
Cell phone panorama during McCartney concert at Times Union Center.
Glad my husband and I made the once-in-a-lifetime splurge to see the legend in person at the Times-Union Center in Albany Saturday, July 5. 

Some 13,500 people packed the arena where McCartney played an assortment of mostly Beatles, a couple of Wings and several newer songs for three solid hours, with breaks only to banter with the audience, tell a story about the old days, and, near the end, bring up a Rochester couple whose signs read: “He’ll only propose to me if he meets you” and “I have the ring and I’m 64 years old.” The guy sang a bit of guess what and then McCartney instructed him to get down on one knee and propose. He did, and she accepted. 

Selfie at McCartney concert
Two huge vertical screens on either side of the stage focused mostly on McCartney, who seemed small by comparison – at least from the other side of the arena. But this was a big show, and he carried it – with his voice and overall presence.

People can comment and argue over his choice of songs, and the almost constant light-show, plus what I thought were kind of gimmicky pyrotechnics during “Live and Let Die” -- although it looks pretty cool in the accompanying video taken by Lisa Lewis, editor of The Record and The Saratogian. 

I’m glad he was feeling well enough to start up his U.S. round of tours with this opening in Albany, and lucky to have seen the show in person.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Your turn to speak up on vacant eyesores in Saratoga

I’m not the only one fed up with vacant, neglected residential property in their neighborhood. More than a dozen of you responded to my piece about vacant homes and the apparent lack of city pressure on owners. I’ll share some of your stories and comments today. But first, an update on communication with Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, a member of the City Council.

The owner of this disaster at 32 Park Place
told me this is their next project. Sorry,
Phila Street residents.
I get the sense that regardless of good intentions, the doubling of the staff to two code enforcers and the addition of clerical support have barely made a dent in their feeling of being overwhelmed, documentation is not a strong suit, and the year-old law regarding vacant properties is not getting it done.

Mathiesen emailed to tell me that the law was sparked not by the regrettable deterioration of 66 Franklin St., but “to provide a dis-incentive for people to hang on to vacant properties for many years while they gradually deteriorate and continue to adversely affect surrounding homes and neighborhoods.”

However, Mathiesen noted, “I agree that more needs to be done as far as follow-up for the Vacant Properties Ordinance. The operations of our office have been compromised while in our temporary space. We will be doing much more on this when we are back in our City Hall offices. I will have more information on your other concerns once I have spoken to our staff. I will get back to you soon.”

We can be reasonably patient without letting the city off the hook. I’ve asked for documents showing to when and to whom letters about vacant property were sent, whether they were received, and what has happened since. While we’re waiting, here are excerpts from some of your emails. (I didn’t ask whether I could use writers' names, so I won’t. But I do thank everyone for their encouraging comments. And I will use photos if you can send them as jpegs, please.)

Wild animal kingdom: We have, more than once, reported rodents, feral cats, possum and other wildlife. The large addition in the upper rear half of 32 Park Place, makes it more than a residential building, almost like a bed and breakfast. It's just dry timber. … Thanks for the helpful information and bringing/keeping this issue in the public eye.

Wish it were mine: I’ve been following Helen Simpson's vacant properties for years. Tried to buy the white house on Phila, but she had just purchased it before I could follow up. Count me in on anything I can do to help in the future.

Dangerous and disgusting: As a Phila Street resident, I am thoroughly fed up with the lack of any upkeep effort whatsoever on the part of the owners. Indeed I worry that 63 Phila will collapse onto my house! I am in the process of writing up a petition in order to more firmly bring this issue to the attention of our elected officials. Pigeon crap is not only ugly but can pose a very real health risk (it is friable and can, when dry, take to the air), especially to the very young and very old.

Owner MIA: Oh how I related to your article regarding vacant homes. The house across the street from me (67 Monroe Street) has been vacant for eight years. My understanding is that the owner is "missing" and she abandoned the home. Code Enforcer Dan Cogan has been supportive and did have the two-foot lawn mown this past week. Several people want to buy the house, but without contact information that task is impossible.

Another mystery owner: We would like to know the status or any pertinent information regarding the vacant house at 5 Gick Road. It is a terrible eyesore on the neighborhood. Small animals abound around the property. Heaven knows what is in the house! I believe the property is in the hands of a lawyer but nothing seems to be happening.

Birds, squirrels, who knows what: I have another address for you. The main house at 200 Caroline St. has been vacant a long time. Occasionally the owner cuts the grass but there is absolutely no maintenance to this very attractive house. There are large holes in the columns and eaves with squirrels and birds going in and out. The east side of the house is deteriorating badly on the exterior. Who knows what’s going on inside? Behind the house is a very nice cottage that has been vacant for years and is also overgrown. And at the far south end of the property is a barn/garage, the roof of which fell in about five years ago and the city made the owner fix it. But that building is a leaner anyway. The property has been on the Preservation Foundation’s Ten-to-Save list for several years.

Heartbreaking decay: The Brackett cottage on Excelsior and the former Ash Grove Inn out Church Street -- passing each makes me weep. 

Junk to boot: I live near another vacant eye sore in Saratoga. It is on the corner of Jefferson Terrace and East Broadway, near the racino. Not only is the house in shambles, there is junk and an old van in the yard for over a year. Can't believe this is allowed for such a long time.

Those of you who have dealt with the code enforcers typically describe them as polite, responsive and concerned. That's been my experience, too. So what's actually being done to cite and follow-up on violators of the vacant property law (which I describe in my previous post)? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacant eyesores mar Saratoga neighborhoods

The fence keeps people off 69 Phila St., but not pigeons, who
obviously do their business on the porch.  
Living in walking distance to downtown Saratoga Springs evokes images of neighborhoods where people nod to passersby from the porches of lovely hundred-year-old homes.

And then there are houses like the one across the street from mine: vacant for decades (except for occasional street people and wildlife), with once-beautiful woodwork hopelessly decayed, long stretches of weeds poking through the rotted porch, and a shrubbery-shrouded side serving as an impromptu toilet for people headed home from the bars.

A law to discourage property from going to pot was adopted in February 2013. I’m trying to find out who it applies to and how it’s being enforced. Soon as I do, I’ll let you know.

The owners of 32 Park Place, uninhabited
for decades, said this will be their next project.

The monstrosity on my street is one of an estimated 50 vacant properties in Saratoga Springs – less than 1 percent of the parcels in the city, but eyesores that have been ignored with impunity for too long.

The owners of the house near mine, Helen and Harold Simpson, own other downtown properties. Two are vacant buildings on Phila Street that they hoped to split into three lots instead of two. The zoning board in 2005 reasonably rejected their request. Almost a decade later, the two boarded-up houses, with pigeon crap covering the porches, remain a disgusting reminder that nothing really prevents people from buying property and letting them go to seed.

Another reminder appeared in recent property transactions showing the same couple bought yet another empty downtown house, this one on High Rock Avenue, for $266,774. More property when other parcels are yet to be made habitable? I’ve complained to the city about the Park Place house as a private citizen, but the issue of property left to rot is really a public issue.

Last month, I sent the city a request for any records documenting complaints, city responses, inspections, violations, building permit requests – anything – related to the house on my street. A few days later, in what I was assured was strictly coincidence, the owner called me for the first time ever, with the news that they planned to pursue permits for renovations on Park Place this summer and suggesting I check out their latest completed projects on the West Side.

Then, about a week ago, I was bemoaning the presence of boarded-up houses with the head of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, who mentioned the city has a law requiring vacant properties to be registered. So I filed another request with the city, this time asking for all records pertaining to enforcement of the law. The city has acknowledged these requests and promises a response in accordance with the state Freedom of Information Law.

The city vacant property law, reportedly prompted by a fiasco on Franklin Street, in which a historically significant house deteriorated beyond repair, was adopted in February 2013. The law notes that vacant buildings “are likely to become both unsightly and unsafe (and) quickly develop a negative effect on their surrounding neighborhoods as well as on the entire city.” 

The law requires a $250 annual registration fee for each vacant residential structure (and $500 for non-residential), along with proof of safety inspections, a written intentions for the premises and other information. Owners are supposed to register on their own or within 30 days of getting a notice to do so from the city. Scofflaws face a penalty.

Is anyone registered? I’ll keep you posted on the city’s answers. And if you know of any vacant property that ought to be registered, please email me

Monday, June 2, 2014

Ingrid Michaelson comes to Clifton Park: I'll take her the way she is

You’ve heard Ingrid Michaelson’s songs even if you don’t know her, because her music has been in TV shows and commercials. She is a wonderful pop-singer/songwriter with a crisp, distinctive voice and music and lyrics that appeal to people of all ages – though the vast majority of the 800 or so people at Upstate Concert Hall May 27 were 25 or younger. I expected to be the oldest, at 60, though I think I was beat by a white-haired Williams College professor.
I figured that a 6:30 p.m. concert on a Tuesday night would have me home by 9. Ha! The doors opened close to 6:30 and there were two opening acts (Storyman and Sugar and the Hi Lows), so it was 9:20 before Michaelson and her five-person band appeared. 
She was worth the wait, and we stayed until the third encore at about 11 p.m., in time to catch the tail end of a torrential downpour.
This was my first time at Clifton Park’s Upstate Concert Hall – formerly known as Northern Lights – and only my second time at a standing-room-only indoor concert. The first was to see The Hold Steady at WAMC’s The Linda in downtown Albany. My husband and I were happy in the back, where we could lean against a wall.
My pal Peggy and I got luckier at Upstate Concert Hall. We waited in line for an hour for the doors to open (plenty of time to overhear college girls gripe about parents, boys and absent friends), and when the 50 or so people ahead of us staked out their space at the foot of the stage, we claimed two spaces on a padded bench toward the rear but still only thirty feet or so from the elevated stage.  Five or six other “old people” joined us. During Michaelson’s performance, we stood on the bench for a fairly unobstructed view.
She sang a mix of new and old songs, including my favorite “The Way I Am.” She was personable and just the right amount of chatty. She shared a funny story with the audience about her father telling her she was mentioned on TV by JayLo, who said an American Idol singer had taken one of Michaelson’s covers to a new level. Then she showed them a thing or two.
Peggy and her daughter Sophie and I had seen Michaelson two years ago in a sold-out concert at The Egg in Albany. Definitely an older crowd in the Egg than at Upstate Concert Hall, but both were enthusiastic and UCH may have the Egg crowd beat. I'm glad I was part of both.