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Summer 2001

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Tales of the City: Boom or bust, Saratogians work to keep downtown thriving

by Kim Smithgall and Kathryn Gallien

“I remember when my father came back from World War II, and the racetrack hadn’t run for three years and not one downtown building had been painted during that period. My father said it was the most depressing time in his life; he had returned with a tremendous sense of elation after being victorious in the war, and he was coming back to a turn-down city where he was going to spend the rest of his life. So he banded together with others and said, we’ve got to do something about this.” —Charles V. Wait, CEO of Adirondack Trust Company and trustee of Skidmore College (like his father before him)

     Unlike many small cities today, Saratoga Springs features a lively, economically vibrant downtown. It hasn’t always been so, and during those hard times—from depressions and world wars to recession and suburbanization—Saratoga’s citizenry fought back. Programs for revitalizing the downtown business district date as far back as 1873, when the great hotels were rising along Broadway for the throngs of tourists who came for the high society, the waters, the horses, and the gambling.

     But efforts that began a century later, in 1973, seemed to herald a new era for Saratoga Springs, marked by community concern and collaboration that has continued into the twenty-first century. Skidmore College, which occupied buildings just east of Broadway for its first half-century and was rebuilt at the north end of the street in the 1960s, has always played a role. The college and the city are synergistic: Saratoga’s lively downtown scene has helped attract generations of students to what is arguably the best college town in the Northeast, and in turn those students help enrich the city with volunteerism, involvement in local politics, and of course spending. Skidmoreans and Saratogians alike share an enthusiasm for shopping, eating, strolling, and partying downtown.

     Skidmore alumni through the decades treasure different memories of downtown—of ice cream from Walter’s, flowers from Schrade’s, cosmetics from MacFinns, medicines from Menges and Curtis, shoes from Kohn Brothers and Raymond’s, incense and antiques from Mabou, jeans and flannels from Glickman’s, and just about everything else from Farmers Hardware. Hotels, taverns, and coffee shops vied for advertising spots in the Skidmore News and yearbooks—the Paramount called itself “Skidmore’s favorite retreat,” the Worden “Skidmore’s other campus.”

     “I remember when Broadway had three or four furniture stores, a Woolworth’s, candy kitchens, shoe stores, and lots of women’s clothing stores,” says Beatrice Swartfigure Sweeney ’37, former city historian. From 1886 until 1983 shoppers scoured the locally owned Starbuck’s department store for, as a flyer put it, “dress goods, linens and housekeeping goods…hosiery, notions, ladies’ muslin underwear and Foster’s Kid Gloves.”

     Stores like these shared Broadway with majestic remnants of the city’s Victorian heyday, including hotels like the 824-room Grand Union. But in 1953 the Grand Union was demolished, and a series of fires in the 1950s and 1960s— one of which took out an entire row of buildings on the east side of Broadway—sucked the life out of the city center. Saratoga Springs began a steep economic decline.

     By 1973 the downtown vacancy rate had reached 50 percent. The opening of the Pyramid Mall in 1972 in the neighboring town of Wilton represented a tangible threat that prompted Saratogians into action. Business leaders, residents, students, preservationists, city planners, and historians banded together to save the downtown business district. They began with a vision for revitalization called the Saratoga Plan of Action (SPA).

     In their 1970 book The Nineteenth Century Architecture of Saratoga Springs, Skidmore art professors Stephen Prokopoff and Joan Siegfried expressed “a deep concern over the neglect, the deterioration and…the demolition that presently threatens many of Saratoga’s remaining Victorian structures.” “When we began developing the Plan of Action, there were twenty-two empty storefronts, and nearly all the second and third floors of the buildings were empty, except for the birds and squirrels,” recalls Robert Bristol, a principal in the Saratoga Associates landscape architecture firm. “People wanted to do something with downtown that recognized Saratoga’s wonderful strain of Victorian architecture.”

     This affection for Saratoga’s heritage was a definite change in attitude, according to Martha Stonequist, city historian and daughter of the late Skidmore sociologist and urban planner Everett Stonequist. “In the years following World War II, people were into everything new. With the innovations after the war—plastic, nylon—everything old was thrown out or disregarded,” Stonequist says. “So when residents started looking at saving the city’s Victorian buildings and ambiance, Saratoga put itself right at the forefront of national preservation efforts.”

From the ground up

     Saratogians mobilized to develop their city in the context of its glorious past. Says Joe Dalton, longtime president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, “The Plan of Action was a real grassroots effort. We involved school teachers, business owners, entrepreneurs, housewives, students, everyone who wanted to be heard. We interviewed every tenth registered voter in the city and every fifth senior citizen in both the Stonequist Apartments and the Saratoga Retirement Center about development issues. Every tenth Skidmore student was also surveyed.” Surveys also reached 10 percent of Broadway residents and 53 percent of downtown merchants and professional organizations.

Kathleen and Noel Smith recently turned a derelict Victorian-era rooming house into the upscale Saratoga Arms Bed and Breakfast.

     A presentation on revitalization was well received, and soon property owners raised $6,000 for landscape improvements. “Volunteers planted 250 trees in the downtown area, and then flowers were added,” Dalton recalls. “These activities gave people a visual and hands-on investment in downtown.”

     “This tree-planting was a real renegade approach,” according to Bristol, “because city government simply wasn’t interested at that time.” As hoped, the move caught the attention of city politicians. Additional public funds allowed the continued development of the Plan of Action.

     “Every building in the central business district was inventoried, and rough designs were made to show how these buildings could blend in with the Victorian architecture,” Dalton explains. “Then we asked Skidmore art students to design a model of downtown.” The model was used in the “Dream Game,” a massive participatory design and planning process. Residents were invited to use the model to “design” their ideal downtown, and the whole process was recorded on slides and video so participants’ ideas could be incorporated into a final vision.“We had more than sixty public meetings. We also set up a storefront office staffed by volunteers so residents could stop in and make suggestions,” Bristol says. “Once we had a vision for downtown, we set up the ‘Implementation Game,’ which tested the community’s ability to carry out the vision.”

     The final Plan of Action set priorities for improvements in building facades, sidewalks, parking, maintenance, and promotion. With residents willing to make an investment in Saratoga Springs, the city council got behind redevelopment too.

Preservation and renovation

     Formed in 1977, the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation worked with the city council to designate historic districts within which buildings could be saved from demolition. With foundation guidance, the city used a $500,000 federal grant to improve 85 percent of the building facades on Broadway. Also in 1977 the city council approved the creation of the Design Review Commission to help maintain Saratoga’s appealing architectural character. The commission reviews proposals for renovations and new construction to ensure that designs are compatible with surrounding structures.

     Meanwhile the city planning board committed to putting off projects by nonlocal developers in order to give local businesspeople time to initiate redevelopment efforts. “We wanted the central business district to have three years to begin revitalization,” Dalton comments. “We used all legal means possible to hold off the outside developers.”

     Also, downtown property owners approved the creation of a special-assessment tax district where property taxes were increased by 6 percent, with the proceeds used exclusively for downtown redevelopment. In the end, more than a dozen community organizations, scores of business people, and thousands of volunteers prevailed. Broadway began to reemerge from its ashes.

     And the revitalization trend continues, thanks to a series of community planning efforts. In the mid-1980s, Saratogians enthusiastically participated in Next Step I and Next Step II forums designed to plan for growth in the city. A master plan was developed in 1987 and revised in 1999 in light of the phenomenal growth and commercial expansion in nearby Wilton. And this year, with broad participation, Saratoga Springs has developed a comprehensive plan to guide sustainable development that “enhances economic opportunity and community well-being while protecting the amenities upon which our economy and community depend.” First goal: “Enhance the vitality and success of the City’s downtown core area.”

Rave reviews on Broadway

     The fruits of Saratoga’s collaborative efforts have been recognized on a national level. In 1996 the city was honored with a Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which recognized its “triumph over urban decay, suburban sprawl and economic downturns.” Trust president Richard Moe said, “Saratoga Springs’ indomitable commitment to preserving and revitalizing its downtown district proves that America’s Main Streets are alive and well, and infinitely adaptable to face the change of the millennium.”

With all the changes she’s witnessed in Saratoga Springs since her student days, Bea Swartfigure Sweeney ’37 says, “I think it’s the best place in the world to live.”

     In 1998 Saratoga received the Great American Place Award from American Heritage magazine. The city was honored for its ability to embrace the past in order to cultivate present and future economic success. Approximately twenty-five other historic cities were in the running for the award, but Saratoga, American Heritage enthused, is “a place that’s tempered the Gilded Age’s ostentation with a boisterous egalitarianism…a place that has gone through bitter times yet still draws the attention of the world every August and offers superb natural beauty (along with an exuberant architectural legacy) the year round, a place very much aware that its present fortunes depend largely on the imaginative exploitation of its past.”

     Residents, historians, business professionals, and politicians alike agree that Saratoga Springs still has what it takes to win such awards.

     “It is unusual that a community of this size has so much to attract people,” says Bea Sweeney. “Just think about it—we have the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Skidmore and Empire State College, two racetracks, a new library, Congress Park and Spa State Park, and specialty stores in a nice downtown setting. And those incredible flowers all around town. It’s these amenities that attract people to Saratoga. I think it’s the best place in the world to live.”

     Brook Hobson, recent executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, agrees. “Saratoga is such a livable, walkable, safe, and manageable city.

     We have remarkable cultural activities, the track, historic character, and community spirit,” she comments. “Of course, we also have a vital and vibrant downtown, which is something that’s been disappearing from the American landscape.”

A 1940s-era postcard of the Grand Union Hotel

     Indeed. Just ask Saratogian James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere and an outspoken advocate of “smart growth” and “new urbanism.” In his online broadside Civitas, Kunstler reviews the city’s building projects with a sharp eye and often caustic wit, decrying the cheap, boxy, and ephemeral and applauding renovation and construction that reflect and respect the city’s architectural heritage. “The city center is the new frontier of development,” he writes in Civitas. “Suburbia is yesterday’s tomorrow.”

     As downtown flourishes, residential and commercial growth brings new challenges and concerns. To monitor and anticipate trends, a nonpartisan group of Skidmoreans and Saratogians is compiling basic data to help inform the many studies, debates, and votes on issues from education to transportation to development. This Skidmore-Saratoga Study Group, directed by Thomas Lewis, Skidmore’s Quadracci Professor of Social Responsibility, maintains a Web site with figures from the 2000 census and other sources, showing, for instance, that the rate of growth in the city’s population (currently about 26,000) has slowed in recent decades—still setting it apart from many cities in upstate New York, which have typically lost residents in the last ten years.

     A growing population certainly attracts business and industry to the area, but Saratogians are cautious. “We don’t want to get too big too fast,” says Mayor Kenneth Klotz, who is also an academic advisor in Skidmore’s University Without Walls program. “At the same time, we don’t want to stop growth either. We have to moderate it.”

Recent Broadway debuts

     Kathleen and Noel Smith, owners of Saratoga Arms Bed and Breakfast, have played an important role in Broadway’s renewal, perhaps inspired by Kathleen’s memories of sadder times. “The experience that really stays in my mind,” she recalls from her 1950s childhood, “is when my father took me down to Broadway to show me all the bathtubs in front of the old Grand Union Hotel just before it was demolished.”

     It must be especially satisfying, then, to have saved one of Saratoga’s deteriorating gems. The Smiths may have been the only ones to recognize what Noel calls “a diamond in the rough” in the badly neglected residential hotel at Broadway and Walton Street. Originally built by Gideon Putnam’s grandson in the 1870s, the French Renaissance structure had been a boardinghouse (the Putnam, the Walton, and the Windsor) for most of its history. The Smiths purchased it in 1997 and began one of the most extensive and impressive downtown rehabilitation projects in recent years. The once-decaying porch is now worthy of the fine old Broadway hotels. Rooms combine antique dressers and four-poster beds with CD players, computer data ports, and bathroom telephones. “We knew there was a need for upscale accommodations on Broadway,” says Kathleen. “Adirondack Trust recognized that need, as well. The bank has been so supportive of our efforts. I’m not sure that would have happened in many places other than Saratoga.”

     Preservationists, businesspeople, and government leaders helped support the Saratoga Arms project, as well as other Broadway hits such as the J. W. Pfeil building opposite Washington Street. It opened in 1997 with an Eddie Bauer store at ground level and offices upstairs. Across the street, in place of the unappealing Woolworth’s strip mall (formerly the site of a Grand Union supermarket and, before that, of the Grand Union Hotel), a complex called Congress Park Centre began to take shape in 1997, with a Kinko’s copy center, Rent-A-Center, and office space. The second structure in the block —on a much grander scale—is now rising and slated to open later this year with apartments on the upper floors and retailers Banana Republic and the Gap at street level.

Lofty goal: All-time top scorer Brian Culkin '01 takes flight above the Hartwick defense.

     With last year’s new Borders bookstore (on the site where Pope’s Pizza used to squat), the encroachment of national-chain retailers is raising some eyebrows. “We just have to be careful not to become overwhelmed by chains,” says Holly Schwarz-Lawton, executive director of the Urban Heritage Area Program, formed in 1989 to preserve and promote cultural and natural resources in Saratoga Springs. “Money generated in chain stores doesn’t always stay in the community,” she notes, “whereas our locally owned businesses tend to be very supportive of civic activities.”

     City Planner Geoffrey Bornemann acknowledges, “We have to be concerned that chains aren’t as active downtown participants as the local merchants who live here.” But, he says, “they’re likely creating a shopping market that we didn’t have previously. Now we have different types of shopping options located in one place. That brings in more people to enjoy the whole culture of our downtown.”

     Dalton agrees. “Stores like the Gap, Banana Republic, and Eddie Bauer can generate traffic that downtown Saratoga doesn’t normally attract”—including Skidmore students.

     So far, the franchises and home-grown commerce seem to be coexisting. Coffeeshop business is perking at both nationally franchised Starbuck’s and locally owned Uncommon Grounds. And Saratoga’s own Putnam Market and Wine is also thriving at 433 Broadway, a former pedestrian stairway between buildings where local developer Thomas Roohan built a new structure in 1999 (and had the building’s ceramic sign crafted and fired at Skidmore by Jill Fishon-Kovachick ’81, Darren Prodger ’93, and visiting instructor Doug Klein).

Living with the mix

     Whether it’s about chain stores, architecture, parking, truck traffic, or green space, Saratogians don’t hesitate to voice their opinions about their downtown, and that sense of ownership has kept the city center strong.

     Skidmore students weighed in last fall with a Skidmore News editorial, “Living with the Mix,” by Amanda Daunis ’03 and Jennifer Rose Nathan ’03. Taking note of the chain stores on Broadway and reflecting on the consequences for the “unique character of downtown Saratoga Springs” that students had long enjoyed, they extolled the virtues of both national stores and smaller niche shops. “Downtown Saratoga needs to stay competitive in order to survive,” they wrote, against the proliferation of outlying “big box” stores and malls, which “pose a serious threat to downtown’s economic stability. Ultimately, it is the consumer who will decide which businesses succeed.” That means shopping at both kinds of stores in the downtown district. As Mayor Klotz told them,“We can live with the mix.”

     That mix puts the national and the local, the old and the new, side by side on Broadway. For it all to work, the citizenry known for its community involvement will need to continue tending to growth and revitalization. “The main thing that could hurt downtown at this point, says Bristol, “is if we fall asleep at the wheel and don’t pay attention to what’s happening. We have to keep thinking and planning. ” Schwarz-Lawton seconds the comment, saying, “We all need to stay on top of the phenomenon that’s happening in Saratoga. We cannot rest on our laurels.”

Kim Smithgall is a communications specialist and freelance writer, and Kathryn Gallien is a part-time Scope writer; both live in Saratoga Springs.

How to succeed in business

Chain stores may be colonizing Saratoga Springs, but many local firms are holding their own—and then some. One secret to their success is fresh ideas and solid research, courtesy of Skidmore seniors enrolled in town-and-gown–devised independent studies in entrepreneurship.

With their Caroline Street rehab project looming behind them, Molly Carleton ’01, Peter DiCarlo, Leslie VandenHandel DiCarlo ’79, and Jane Bowie ’01 meet to plan an ambitious new tavern and café.

Take Stephen Sullivan ’78, busy co-owner of Longfellow’s inn just south of town. When he looked to expand his corporate-retreat and business services, he knew he needed research. He tapped Dana Chin ’01 (already a Longfellow’s intern), and she got busy surveying corporate clients and scoping out the competition. She found his plans feasible if he added a conference room, Internet wiring, and deals at the new golf course adjacent to the inn. She also clarified a niche for the inn: “I said, ‘Sully, you have just eighteen rooms, so you have the ability to be really special and attentive.’ So now he’s getting a new customer database that’ll help him offer more tailored services to his repeat customers.”

Restaurateur Leslie VandenHandel DiCarlo ’79, owner of the Springwater Inn on Union Avenue, had a somewhat more daunting project: she and husband Peter were new owners of a large derelict building that they proposed to gut, rehab, and open as an eclectic bar and restaurant complex. When they first showed their Skidmore interns through the big brick building at Maple and Caroline Streets, snow fell on them through the rotted roof. Some thirty-six Dumpsters later, the debris was mostly gone and rebuilding began. Their plan envisions a ground-floor tavern, a second-floor café, a third-floor banquet and catering facility, even a rooftop café.

In an earlier business course, business-Spanish major Christine Merenda ’01 and English major–business minor Molly Carleton ’01 had mocked up a business plan for a bar, while business and economics double major Jane Bowie ’01 had done hers for a catering firm. This spring, to help launch the DiCarlos’ new venture, Merenda and Carleton researched similar taverns and clubs, and Bowie set up a spreadsheet to chart costs, revenues, and other numbers. “Because we were students asking questions, some people didn’t want to bother with us,” says Carleton. “To get them to tell us their prices and offerings, we had to pretend we were planning our wedding!” Projections and estimates were plugged into the spreadsheet, which “Leslie is pretty good at now,” Bowie grins, “though she didn’t know the software at first.” Bowie also showed DiCarlo some library references with helpful data for assembling business plans.

A grateful DiCarlo (“I was an art major, but now I wish I’d studied a little business!”) made sure the students had learning opportunities in return, such as invitations to join her meetings with an Adirondack Trust loan officer—“after all,” she says, “they can answer questions he might have about our plan.” Says Merenda, “This partnership was great. We had something to offer, and that put responsibility on us. As a result we accomplished a lot.”

Ditto for Cynthia Fifield ’01, an art and business double major who worked with Joseph Dalton of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of the city’s Design Review Commission, which wanted to offer a list of historically appropriate house-paint colors. Fifield researched paint company services; then, through Allerdice hardware store, she helped persuade designers at Pittsburgh Paints to recommend color combinations for various types and vintages of architecture. Now, says Dalton, Design Review has a palette of twenty-two colors designated as preapproved. Fifield also facilitated a project whereby Saratoga’s Preservation Foundation lends citizens a digital camera to photograph their home and lets them use its computer to “repaint” the photo in various color options.

Another housing-related project was a startup plan for a Web site linking landlords with student renters. Business majors Amanda Rivera ’01 and Lisa Powers ’01 got some leads from Saratoga real-estate agent Jenny Mirling, interviewed landlords and students living off campus, and began developing their idea for a dot-com enterprise to help orient students to life in Saratoga. (It’s a crying need, says Mirling: “Saratoga has the most inhospitable rental system! All those professors and other newcomers really deserve a better introduction to this great town.”) Though the semester is over, Powers says she’s pursuing the business plan this summer; as soon as she rounds up enough financial backing, she’s ready to create the ReasonableRentals.net Web site.

“Using Saratoga as a laboratory ” is “awesome,”says Elliott Masie, an international e-learning marketer and member of Skidmore’s Business Advisory Council who helped brainstorm the idea for the senior partnerships with Roy Rotheim, chair of Skidmore’s management and business department. Adds Masie, “These students graduate with life skills, not just a plaque for the wall.” As a banker, Adirondack Trust CEO Charles Wait (also a Skidmore BAC member) is delighted that the students are “helping our customers with their businesses.” No wonder Saratoga’s mayor, Kenneth Klotz, officially honored the program, saying, “The resources it harnesses for the benefit of all Saratoga Springs are as unique a treasure as the individuals that have given their time and expertise to this project.” —SR

 


© 2001 Skidmore College