Talk aims to boost art-driven economy

Philip Morris, CEO of the Proctors Theater in Schenectady, talks about how to use the arts to bolster a downtown economy.
(Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Philip Morris, CEO of the Proctors Theater in Schenectady, talks about how to use the arts to bolster a downtown economy. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — Dozens of artists, businesses owners and other North Country residents met Tuesday to discuss how to use the arts as an economic driver.

The two-part meeting began with a talk called “The Creative Economy: Re-imagining Our Rural Downtowns” from the CEO of Proctors Theater in Schenectady, Philip Morris.

Proctors Morris was hired in 2002 as the region struggled and the theater faced a daunting future. Since then, the institution has helped bring economic stability to the city’s downtown.

Roaming the aisles in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium, Morris recalled overseeing the renewal of Schenectady’s downtown economy, arts community and historic Proctors Theatre.

“Somehow my life ended up being about downtowns,” Morris said.

Schenectady is vastly different from Saranac Lake. A larger city connected to Albany, the economic and geographic factors it faces are not the same as in the Adirondacks. However, Morris says the same principals and broad ideas apply when trying to improve a downtown area through the arts.

With the Pendragon Theatre’s plan to move into a downtown location in the near future, there will be a direct similarity to the process in Schenectady.

Pendragon has set up an advisory board to ensure the move to 47-49 Main St. is most effective for both the theater and the surrounding businesses, according to Pendragon board Chairwoman Holly Wolff. With representation from village trustees, the chamber of commerce, Cinema Saranac Lake, the Downtown Advisory Board, ArtWorks, BluSeed, Historic Saranac Lake and the Adirondack Center for Writing, there is a strong focus on Pendragon’s new place as an economic engine.

“This move is as much about revitalization as it is about theater,” Wolff said.

A uniting thread throughout Morris’s talk was working with what is already downtown and staying authentic to the area, using the people and resources there.

“It is an endless effort of learning what skills are in your backyard,” Morris said.

Hospitality is one of these backyard skills Proctors uses. A “Downtown Ambassador” program gives hospitality training to alcohol and drug abusers, providing them with employment as they walk visitors to the theater and city across streets, giving them directions and suggestions for their time in Schenectady.

“We looked at the neighborhood and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to ask people to leave,'” Morris said. “These are our neighbors. It matters. Let’s take a gamble.”

Morris said 30 of the approximately 100 ambassadors employed in past years have gone on to find full-time jobs.

He said the unique architecture of a downtown area should determine what actions are taken and that actions should avoid countering the architecture already set up. In Saranac Lake this might include the narrow alleys connecting Main Street and Broadway with the Saranac River and the River Walk.

At the same time, Morris said investments and additions will be needed for major change. By building a heating and cooling plant at Proctors, the theater was able to run with no utility cost and reduce utility spending for 22 neighboring buildings by 25 to 30 percent. This was an incentive for businesses to move into the many vacant locations surrounding the theater.

After Morris’s talk was a round table discussion with Joshua Kretser from the Strand Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh, Jill Breit from the Canton-based Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, Aaron Woolf who owns the Deer’s Head Inn in Elizabethtown and Amy Catania from Historic Saranac Lake. Ellen Rocco, the station manager at North Country Public Radio, moderated.

Each member spoke about projects used to improve their downtown economies, sharing stories of renovating a movie theater in Plattsbugh, buying a five-and-dime store in Canton, reopening the Deer’s Head Inn in Elizabethtown and turning a crumbling former tuberculosis lab in Saranac Lake into a museum, respectively.

“It seems like economies often follow the artists and revitalize communities,” Rocco said.

Attendees asked for more structure and plans for how to implement these ideas. Speakers noted that there is just as much creativity in bringing a plan to fruition as there is in any other art form. Woolf pointed out that seeing bikes, skis or beer as local craft industries takes creativity and that developing new industries can be just as valuable as working in old ones.

Openness to new plans was a strong theme in the discussion, with talk about when to say “yes,” when to stop saying “yes” and how to get others to say “yes.”

Saranac Lake has been building its arts community for a long time and has made economic progress through artistic outlets. The meeting focused on the need to capitalize on that and create a creative identity for Saranac Lake.

“What Philip was talking about in terms of downtown revitalization is reflective of how the arts actually has impacted Saranac Lake already,” Wolff said. “You have a community of 5,000 and you have over 50 studios and galleries in the area as represented by Saranac Lake ArtWorks. I mean, that is unbelievable.”

With a studio for every 100 Saranac Lake residents, the sheer number of artists and creatively active people in the community has economic influence in and of itself, generating full-time residents as well as tourists.

“I really do think people don’t yet appreciate the impact of the arts,” Wolff said. “The creative economy brings people in.”

Wolff said that while the untouched wilderness brings many to the Adirondack area, people come to Saranac Lake specifically for the creative opportunities.

The event was well attended by Saranac Lakers and visitors from around the area. Many participated in the discussion about the best course for downtown Saranac Lake, and the speakers of the night urged them all to be influential individuals where they live and work.