GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – Bill Collins didn’t always want to go into politics. In fact, he spent most of his life against it; even when one-time Glens Falls Mayor Robert Cronin would visit his childhood home, and have long political conversations with his father.
“From then, when I was a young child, to just 10 years ago, I stayed out of all politics, and had no desire to be mayor or even a councilman,” Collins said on Tuesday – from his new office at Glens Falls City Hall.
Despite his past outlooks, Collins was sworn in recently as the 23rd mayor of Glens Falls; and regardless of how he used to feel, he’s excited to be there. Collins previously served as the city’s Ward 2 councilman and ran unopposed last year after previous mayor Dan Hall announced he would not seek a second term. Mayor Collins sat down with NEWS10 via Zoom on Tuesday to talk about both his plans and hopes for the future of Glens Falls, and what it took to get here.
Collins’ road to the new office where he has spent the last two weeks is paved with the influence of previous mayors. Cronin appearing in his childhood is just one. Fast-forward around 30 years, and you’ll find another in the form of Jack Diamond – Hall’s predecessor, and the man who changed Collins’ mind on the field of politics. While Collins was working as director of the New York State Special Olympics, it was Diamond who invited him to join the city board of public safety.
“I really tried to talk him out of it, that I was had a full-time job and a business and three kids, and I really didn’t have time,” Collins recounted. “An hour later I was on the board of public safety, and found that I loved it.”
The board was a volunteer group, meeting once per month to review police and fire department activity and brainstorm on how to better the city’s public safety. Unpaid, in it for the civil service and common good, Collins fell in love with the work for the sake of the work. Two years ago, after Collins had become a city councilman and Hall announced his retirement, that lesson returned to the forefront of Collins’ mind when he considered taking on the duties of mayor.
“It’s a ton of work, for not a lot of pay. You have to supervise 16 department heads,” Collins said. “But there’s so much opportunity for good to be done here, and that’s what I’ve brought to any job where I’ve wondered if I can make a difference. If the answer’s yes, then the pay seems to go by the wayside.”
Communicating and cooperating
When Collins looks ahead, the view from the mayor’s office doesn’t stretch four years ahead in time, but it does cover the whole city in scope. Building strong communication with that community is a top priority for Collins, and an area where he feels the city could be stronger. One of two hires he immediately made on Jan. 1 was Larry Dougley, the city’s new communications specialist.
“We’re too small a city to need a PR guy,” Collins said, “but what we do need is to look at all our communications, and how we’re getting information internally, from one department to the next; from department heads to the common council; and then from those heads out to the community. That shows you how much we need to interact more with people, not less.”
The other immediate hire Collins made was of someone already familiar with Glens Falls’ inner workings. Mike Mender, who previously served as assistant to Mayor Hall, is now setting off as the county’s new community development director.
Mender will be involved in exactly what his new title sounds like, pushing work forward on new projects through the city. Right now, many Glens Falls residents could guess what the main project is – if they know what’s been going on over the course of years on South Street.
The city’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative is several years and $6 million in on a $10 million project to build a new farmers market on South Street, constructing a hybrid market building and making use of multiple out-of-use ones at the corner of South and Elm streets, where three disused buildings have already been demolished. Just a block up Elm Street, another part of the project involves the construction of a parking garage.
Collins pointed out that, as was reported last year, rising costs stemming from supply chain issues have stretched out the timeline on the project, which encompasses the construction of, or changes to, six buildings, all told. The passing of former Economic Development Director Ed Bartholomew hasn’t helped, either. But rising prices aren’t the same as being way over budget.
“It’s like if you or I were redoing our home, and you meet in the kitchen with a contractor. You say, ‘Well, I would love this new flooring, and for it to be heated tile,’ and the contractor asks if you want laminate countertops or marble, and you say, ‘Oh, of course, we’d like marble,'” Collins described. “But then the contractor gets back to you with the bill, and you go, ‘Well, you know what, maybe marble countertops aren’t that important.’ That’s where we are in this process.”
Another place where Mender’s job will come into play is in welcoming new business into the city, such as a potential cannabis store or cafe, pending federal approval. Collins was vocal last year in keeping Glens Falls from opting out of allowing the legal sale of marijuana.
There’s also the matter of housing, where Glens Falls has seen a significant need that Collins thinks will stick around. Although some employees in office-type settings have been told to come work in-person again, many are being told they can stay remote – Collins cited his own sons’ employers in New York City as an example.
“The company that they work for no longer cares where they live. They have offices they can go into, but even prior to COVID, they never had what you and I think of when we think of an office. Now things have changed even further.”
That means more and more people have the freedom to work where they want, and Collins would like to see some choose Glens Falls. That’s work that the Warren County Economic Development Corporation has been doing as well, expanding broadband reach through the county at large to make working from home more viable than ever.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of what Collins calls “work that doesn’t make for great headlines.” In the coming weeks, he will be sitting down with the city Common Council – with many new members – to figure out the processes that will define the city’s next few years.
A mayor’s legacy
Next to Robert Cronin and Jack Diamond, there’s one more local mayoral name on the path that has led Collins to the office. When he thinks of the recently retired Mayor Dan Hall, it’s as a longtime friend.
“I wouldn’t even use the words ‘Fill his shoes,'” Collins said. “Dan Hall has brought people together and kept this city moving forward.”
Part of how Hall did that was by running on a “Unity platform,” where three local Democrats and three local Republicans ran for office together. In Glens Falls, which Collins sees as a place where party lines don’t define progress, that ticket was exactly what the people wanted.
“Party’s not important. People are important, and we all won.”
When serving from 2017-21, Hall saw Glens Falls shift in some ways affected by the national change. Political rallies and protests became commonplace downtown for a period, especially in 2018-19, held both by groups supporting former President Donald Trump, and those opposing him. Other rallies were held at the office of NY-21 Congresswoman Elise Stefanik on Warren Street. Hall responded by leading the creation of permit rules that would help the city know when something would crowd the sidewalks around Centennial Circle, keeping the protest civil. Even those rules were cause for turmoil, including a lawsuit from one pro-Trump group.
The permit rule and COVID-19 changed things. Nonetheless, in 2020 over 2,000 citizens marched through Glens Falls in a wide Black Lives Matter rally. Just days ago, on Jan. 6, a gathering of around 80 people by Centennial Circle marked one year since the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Collins wasn’t at that ceremony and doesn’t feel it’s his job to be. His concern is with keeping those gatherings safe, no matter what national change inspires local speaking out in the years to come.
“We’re making sure that everyone’s safe and exercising their rights safely,” Collins said. “It would be nice if they were also cordial to each other, but that’s nothing that I can mandate. It’s too bad that we don’t respect different points of view more.”
When it came Collins’ turn to step into office, he did so uncontestedly. He’s the first to do so in the city’s 112-year history. There are projects, like the downtown revitalization initiative and work along the Hudson River, that Hall was around for the start of; which Collins now feels it’s his job to continue on with.
“It’s an honor and a pleasure. It’s a lot of pressure just to make sure I don’t screw it up,” he said with a smile. It’s the same smile he wears when he tells you he used to avoid politics.