Mayor of Saratoga Springs, 1974 to 1980
Raymond Watkin, 91, three-term Mayor of Saratoga Springs in the transformative years of the 1970s, died Sunday August 23 at his home in the city.
Under Raymond Watkin’s leadership as Mayor (1974 to 1980), Saratoga Springs began its transformation from a seasonal tourist destination to a thriving year-round “city in the country.”
Mr. Watkin was the first of the city’s mayors to champion historic preservation, establishing the city’s first programs and regulations concerning historic properties and neighborhoods. His administration transformed Urban Renewal into Community Development, thereby emphasizing needed infrastructure over demolition projects. Mr. Watkin promoted the city through the arts, especially New York City Ballet’s residency, He was an outspoken opponent of racism and anti-Semitism, advanced youth recreation and housing for seniors, and used his political stature to secure the exclusive thoroughbred racing meet, thereby setting a modern standard of Mayoral leadership.
Born in Schenectady, N.Y. June 9, 1929, Mr. Watkin worked as a teenager in a local meatpacking plant, then in various jobs at General Electric Co. He was an active participant in the labor movement at the time, a turbulent and formative period marked by strikes and conflicts between GE and its workforce.
Mr. Watkin visited Saratoga Springs as a child, arriving on the trolley from Schenectady to visit his sister, who worked then at the Weinstein Hotel.
Laid off from American Locomotive Co. after his Army service, Mr. Watkin entered the shoe business and eventually owned the shoe department of an Albany store, M. Solomon, owned by the family of his co-worker at the time, later to become the area’s Congressman, Gerald Solomon, who was then a Democratic committeeman in Albany.
In 1963, Mr. Watkin married Joan Tubell, of Manhattan, after a three-year courtship that began during a summer visit with friends to a camp near Warrensburg.
Through his pursuit of opportunities in the shoe business, Mr. Watkin established Raymond’s Bootery, a specialty shop for ladies’ shoes, on Broadway near the corner of Lake Avenue, a location where he had previously sold shoes for Cohen Brothers. Raymond’s Bootery became a popular destination for women throughout upstate New York.
Mr. Watkin’s candidacy for Mayor began on Primary Day 1973, in the era of non-partisan elections, with a 350-vote write-in backed by then-Public Works Commissioner Thomas McTygue. The subsequent campaign swept incumbents from office and brought a progressive, independent-minded Council into power, made up of two Democrats (Mr. Watkin and McTygue), two Republicans (Joseph Corsale and Donald Connelly) and one member not enrolled in a party (Remegia Foy).
Saratoga Springs in the early 1970s began to assertively embrace its own ambience, using the town’s history and style to advance tourism and commerce. Mayor Watkin and the Council translated that grass-roots vision into city policy and ordinances.
Before Mr. Watkin’s election, it was the official policy of the city to demolish “substandard” housing and commercial buildings, without regard to historic values, then re-develop the properties through the Urban Renewal program. In 1971, the building inspector had threatened to demolish the Batchellor Mansion, at Circular Street and Whitney Place, vacant and in disrepair at the time, before it was rescued by a private buyer.
In early 1974, just after Mr. Watkin’s election, the U.S. Postal Service announced plans to install a drop ceiling to obscure the leaded glass skylight in the Broadway post office, and also cover over the priceless WPA-era murals in the lobby. Mayor Watkin took immediate action to stop the project, taking the Post Office personally to Federal Court in Utica after the City Council would not allow the city itself to be part of the suit.. The Court saw the issue Mr. Watkin’s way and issued an injunction against the Post Office. Soon the Post Office backed down, and the historic interior of one of the city’s most significant public places was saved.
Early in his tenure, Mr. Watkin ended plans for an arterial highway that would have divided the city, and laid the building blocks of planning and historic preservation that led to the city’s present renowned downtown.
These enactments included the Historic Preservation Ordinance, establishment of the Board of Architectural Review, enactment of the Façade Easement Program and downtown Special Assessment District, all in 1977. These initiatives provided for the first coordination of property facades on Broadway, and of public resources for historic improvements to the downtown business district. Mr. Watkin soon initiated the establishment of the neighborhood historic districts within the zoning code, gaining approval from the council in 1979.
Mr. Watkin reformed the Urban Renewal Agency from a demolition program into one whose mission was Community Development. Mayor Watkin and his allies reassigned Federal funds from demolition toward the more important Village Brook drainage project, thus saving from decay and collapse the Canfield Casino and the entire neighborhood between Henry and Putnam Streets. This reform made possible the development of the current Public Library and many commercial properties in “the gut.” Renovation of the Drink Hall, development of the West Side Fire Station and other improvements stemmed from the Community Development plan developed by Mr. Watkin, He recruited accomplished and qualified individuals to serve the city, including Dr. Bernard E. Donovan, former superintendent of New York City School System, who served the Watkin administration as head of both Community Development and the City Planning Board after relocating to Saratoga Springs.
Mr. Watkin also saw that emphasizing the arts would both enrich the city’s civic life and broaden its economic base. His mayoralty was marked by annual enthusiastic promotion (and city funding) of the New York City Ballet and SPAC. His personal friendship with George Balanchine, highlighted by a parade in Mr. B’s honor, helped build audience and community support for the ballet.
During the gasoline crisis of 1974, Mr. Watkin gained national prominence for negotiating with gasoline stations to implement an “odd-even” program to cut waiting lines at filling stations. The approach, started here, relieved gas lines, congestion and drivers’ anxiety, and soon spread across the country.
Mr. Watkin leveraged his prominent political standing in 1974 and support for racing’s role in the community to secure Hugh Carey’s support for city’s exclusive August thoroughbred meet. Carey faced a Democratic Primary, and his opponent, Howard Samuels, favored Off-Track Betting and was indifferent to Saratoga’s exclusive program, the cornerstone of the city’s summer season.
Mr. Watkin’s lifelong commitment to meeting the needs of ordinary people led to the establishment of the Senior Citizens Center on Williams Street, initiation of the federal Section 8 rental subsidy program, and, in 1979, the construction of the Raymond Watkin Apartments, among many other initiatives. He also mobilized official city and community opposition against an area demonstration by the Ku Klux Klan, and introduced and saw passed unanimously a resolution in May 1978 against the anti-Semitic pamphleteer Richard Cotton, who had planned to campaign in the city.
Fred Dicker, long time columnist for the New York Post, who covered Mr.Watkin for The Saratogian and Albany Times-Union from 1971 to 1975, and who became a close friend of Mr. Watkin, said, “Ray Watkin was clearly a transformative figure for the City of Saratoga Springs, which he loved, and was an inspiration for many Saratogians who came to love him because of his dedication to the city, his hard work, his courage, his incorruptibility, and his idealism, which was very real. He championed historic preservation, economic development, and high ethical standards, values that weren't always identified with City Hall. Many times he said to me that he was determined to do what was right, not necessarily what was most popular. He acted on that principle and I can say as a longtime journalist who covered many many politicians over decades, he was one of the few who actually did.”
After his Mayoral tenure ended, he narrowly lost a race for City Supervisor. He then served on the staff of State Senator Howard Nolan, D-Albany, from 1980 to 1989 as a special advisor on thoroughbred racing. In later years, he remained active in local politics, in 2006 leading the successful campaign against a proposed change in the City Charter. Mr. Watkin remained attentive to and active in local politics and civic affairs, strongly supporting the renewed and revived cause of Charter Reform in the 2017 referendum.
Historic preservation, community development, support for the arts, and affordable housing. The pioneering initiatives of Mayor Raymond Watkin, leading the City Council of the mid-1970s, though taken sometimes against concerted opposition, set a new tone and direction for Saratoga Springs. The years since have seen these priorities take root, and the city flourish.
Mr. Watkin was predeceased in 2013 by his wife, Joan, daughter of Nathan and Bertha Tubell. The Watkins celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June 2012. Other survivors include cousins Randall Terk of El Dorado, California, Linda Lander of Norwalk, Connecticut, and Steven Terk of Estero, Florida.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday August 26 at Beth Israel Cemetery Abbottsford Road in Rotterdam.
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