Jan 19, 2011

Saratoga's upcoming tragedy

If a problem's existence is ignored, is it truly a problem?

How's the thought of a WalMart or TGIF on Broadway sound?

Is Saratoga's jump the shark moment close at hand?

"Denial is a common tactic that substitutes deliberate ignorance for thoughtful planning." (Charles Tremper)

"The speed of the human mind is remarkable. So is its inability to face the obvious."
(Simon Mawer, The Gospel of Judas")

Saratoga Springs --- Health, History & Horses are the three H's that formed the basis of the 100+ year old legacy of the tourist-based economy in Saratoga Springs, NY. One still sees some of the rusted old signs proclaiming such, scattered around the city. What was the proverbial sleepy little town came alive in the summer, attracting multitudes of mostly urban city folk to its semi-remote location in the Adirondack foothills, providing a welcomed breath of fresh mountain air spiked with the sanctioned sins of horse race gambling and recreational drinking.

The natives' modus operandi was simple: go balls to the wall during the warm season, make a bank deposit on Labor Day, and gear-it-down in the colder months, trading and socializing with fellow citizens in a livable, functional and (mostly) localized community setting. In other words: the American ideal, albeit with a unique summer time dynamic.

But popular tourist towns undergo a common development cycle: seasonal visitors like what they see, and many start contemplating the possibility of taking up residence in what they perceive to be an unpaved paradise. A subset of those ponderers eventually does just that. Here come the new neighbors, and they ain't from 'round here, Josephine.

The subsequent demographic inflow takes one of two forms: lower economic classes from neighboring towns arriving in search of service sector work; or those from higher up the food chain of the retired or nearly-retired variety, seeking a safe and pretty landing spot for their Life 3.0 years. Resort towns on the Jersey shore serve as an example of the former; Myrtle Beach and Aspen as the latter.

Saratoga is full force into this type of transition, and obviously following the Myrtle Beach/Aspen formula. But a ghetto is a ghetto, as that term is applied to enclaves on both ends of the class spectrum. The city's resulting gentrification, vanity lifestyle, declining social fabric and gray-brain energy output have been documented in this column's past offerings, signaling a major change in its very heart and soul. The view here is that, in whole, the compounded effect is generally negative. There: the disclaimer is on-record.

With it, too, comes a shift of focus; one best exemplified by a re-take on that Health, History & Horses mantra. Let's look at the three elements, individually:

HEALTH: Originally included to promote the healing powers of the local waters, such an industry has effectively disappeared from the map. Yes, vestiges remain, but the taking of the baths registers nary a blip on the economic activity scorecard.

Some will argue that the health aspect now has an internal focus, substituting activities geared towards residents (yoga in the park, bike races)for the prior tourist attraction purpose. If so, this highlights the marketplace adapting to the demands of its new constituency.

HORSES: The world class thoroughbred track retains its primary function, which is to act as the super-magnet for grabbing a massive quantity of seasonal visitors and thereby filling the coffers of the city's retail and hospitality businesses. But as stated, in recent decades it has also added to its purpose that "get 'em a little pregnant" role of selling local real estate property.

Saratoga's new-demo makeup certainly sees the value of the track in performing those functions, but seems to tolerate it in a deal with the devil attitude. Its PETA-influenced liberal sensibilities breed no love for horse racing as a sporting passion Meanwhile, the neighboring harness track has become little more than a broadcast studio, subsisting on transfer payments from video-crackheads.

HISTORY: At the inception of this branding tag line, History was included out of respect to the area's siting of the eponymous Revolutionary War battles. But from an economic impact analysis, the city's Victorian heritage and architecture had (and has) a more dominant impact. Front and center is the downtown / Broadway street scape -- with its human dollhouse effect -- as the city's foremost, year-round asset. After all, they didn't locate the City Center alongside a convenient Northway exit, did they?

But here lies a problem -- or at least a predicted problem from this vantage point. There is a coming collision between the city's need to preserve its unique downtown look and feel and the sensibilities, influence and power of its mass of recently-arrived citizens.

Dead center on Broadway is the largest retail store in the city: Borders Books. Its bunker-like design is a monstrosity and an eyesore; but that fact is an inconvenient sideline to this discussion. The fact that it is a chain store is the bigger concern; an error of past planning boards and city councils that should not be forgiven:

MEMO TO CITY OFFICIALS (past, present and future): Tourist-centered historic districts are not meant to be filled with national chain store outlets! Visitors need to given a unique experience, one that they do not normally find in their home locations. If not, they will eventually say "WTF? This doesn't look any different than the mall back on Long Island" and abandon that destination as a leisure option.

But bad is about to become even worse: the Borders Corporation is in deep financial difficulties, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. It's easy to see why: its primary products are physical books, movies and music --- now there's a 1-2-3 punch being delivered, wouldn't we agree? Whether the company restructures under Chapter 11 or even merges with a competitor (B&N), the possibility of its closing a location like this one in Saratoga is real. Further, if their destiny is Chapter 7, it won't even be in doubt.

So, what happens to Saratoga's valued downtown streetscape under such a scenario? How does the possibility of a WalMart, TGIF, Applebee's, Chili's or a Home Depot sound? How about two of the above, given the space's size?

Such a chain store vision would be the most likely outcome, for many factors. But the citizens of the great city of Saratoga Springs will rise up and not allow such a thing! Right? Unfortunately, that is doubtful.

Today's New Saratogian has no personal, direct link to the city's history. Therefore, most can not relate to the days when downtown was primarily a localized economy, with locally-owned clothing, hardware and other stores. To them, such a qualifier is a non-starter; the perceived benefits of a big reach mega chain rings truest, and is not perceived as a problem. One cannot blame then; after all they came from a place where glory days are defined as hanging out in the Bergen County Mall and a high school prom in its food court.

If (or more likely when) the news becomes that the Borders on Broadway is closing shop, the buzz will begin as to "who's coming into the space." Here's one bet you can take to the bank: the Whole Foods / Trader Joe's crowd will go into full speed motion. But even a chain restaurant won't be met with much resistance. Indeed, the locals pay lip service to New Urbanism; unfortunately, their definition of it is the ability to walk to a WalMart.

Today, if a TGIF (or other suspect) wanted to move into the Borders spot, there's not much that can really stop them from doing so. The need is for what is called a FORMULA STORE ORDINANCE, which can (and does) provide the legal cover for preventing just such a calamity.

But the sense here is that such bravery would not get popular support, and the city's true power structure (the housing and retail industries) won't let it happen, anyways.

Just mark my words: when that sad time comes, we can mark in our calendars as it being the day this once proud city officially lost its soul and became just another faceless 'burgh in the Land of Mediocrity.



Kimmy R said...

Way over my head. But then again, I'm only 5'1".

Can't ya post stuff bout people getting in fights and accidents?

No? OK.

When u comin to a Rats (er, Devils) game?

Phil the Thrill said...

What the fuck is gray-brain energy output ?

Tim M said...

as one who grew up in sratoga during the 60's and 70's, the idea of a walmart or home depot on broadway is chilling! the writer ( initials RM ) nailed the piece! downtown sratoga was special, even after the fires that ravaged convention hall ( well i remember watching that fire! my brother and i were nearly first on the scene, even beating the fire trucks ) and some other memorable buildings.

Professor said...

Grade= A

D E Gay said...

Borders as a corporation is in serious financial difficulties and has begin closing stores--the one here in Bloomington just closed, in fact--so the fear of it closing in Saratoga is well founded.

I haven't been back since 1993 (memorable ye...ar--my first visit to Saratoga in 10 years, 20th reunion, open heart surgery, qualifying exams) and at point I hadn't been back in about 10 years.

What a difference--and not all good--even then. It was good to see that some life remained in the city, but it was definitely loosing much of what it made the Saratoga of when we were kids.

Development is necessary, even it it only means the retention of quality of life, but with a city like Saratoga that has such a distinctive sense to it any development has to be handled very carefully.

But when cities look at development they don't seem equally often to look to city planners who can maintain the city's culture and plan for new growth as well. Both can be achieved at the same time, if the will is there and people insist on it, but it does take a lot of

Nanoburgh? said...


About the term 'gray brain'

It refers to a person (or group of people) who are at that point in their life where they choose to refrain from engaging in intellectually-challenging initiatives, particularly those related to idea- and business- development activities.

Such is common to older retirees.

In this case, it is offered as being relevant to any analysis of the changing demographics in the city of Saratoga.

Specifically, the current trend is that of an influx of residents that are in this "shut it down" (either fully or partially) phase, displacing a mostly younger and more mentally active constituency.

One critical result of such a trend is a decrease in business activity, entrepreneurship and enterprise building. The corresponding effect on the city's economic and social aspects is significant.

The end result, if/when taken to its extreme, is your standard "retirement community."

Or, the shorter answer is: guys like you!

Don't check out yet, man. You still got some play left, right?

boss hoss said...

my prediction is a heath club

Anonymous said...

Then I can walk around and say "I pick things up and I put them down".

But I think Broadway rent mught be too high for a health club. The economics favor the chains for that sized spot.

How about the worl'ds biggest McDonalds? Theres something we can be proud of!

Real Deal (is back!) said...

When I moved here(early 80's), th track was becoming more popular, gas was chape so the out of state tourists were making the trek up, and the medial blitz was on to promoting the city.

You are right in noticng how that turns into peop,e buying hiosues and moving up permanently. Pretty soon it felt more like I was living in Hampton Beach than I w as in a real town.

Canary said...

Watch out, I hear the local mafia has put a hit on you after this piece.

Anonymous said...

Pass. Not. Fail.

Toga Native said...

It's all about money, and special interests doing what they need to do to protect their turf. You mentione pver on Saratoga in Decline blog how the city officials were in the pocket of the mob during the gambling era. It's no different now, they are in the pockets of a different kind of mob right now. That mob is the gangsters building and selling real estate and all the other businesses ties to it. Somethings never change do they?

Nanoburgh? said...

The COOKIE CUTTER effect is not unique to Saratoga. Here is a story on the long running obersvation of how NYC is losing its mojo ; the so-called Guiliani Effect is still in progress:


Bob C said...

Veddy interesting. I've been disturbed during my most recent journeys through downtown Toga Town in my treks to Jenny Lake to see the charming old triple-balconied hotels being upstaged by the brick behemoths such as the Borders (our old friend Liz managed the old Montana Book Store and sang folk songs at Caffe Lena). I've forwarded the blog to Craig, Nan, and Pam). C&P wrote back immediately to say how much they agre

RJD said...

Other than family deaths, the saddest day in my life was when I pulled out of Saratoga, headed to a new job on the West coast.

I was born in SS, went to SSHS, and lived their post-college until my early 30's. I can still feel the lump in my throat when passing Exit 13, knowing that this would be my last glance at the name on the exit signs and my last chance to change my mind. But I had to keep going and I did.

The 3 or 4 visits back since that day are spaced apart by several years. But the changes are obvious, and as the rock & roll songs says "my city was gone." The physical difference are disturbing.

Worse yet is the human factor. The peope living there now seem to be zombies wandering around in a daze with no true connection to the place they call home.

So each time back hit me with sadness once again. This time, it is a feeling of "could I have stayed there and made a difference?" throwing myself at stopping the downfall? It's doubtful, given the opposing forces.

There's the reasoning behind what must be a self defense mechanism to pretty much wipe the city from my consciousness at this time of my life, because the memories of the good days are matched by less pelasant thoughts about what has happened since.

But I sure did appreciate this piece being mailed to me by another old friend that feels the same way as I do. It's good to know there are at least a few of us that can call BS for what it is.

t said...

Good one.
Some news on Boders,

Anonymous said...

Right on. Keep it up bro.

WWHD? said...

You don't really think that any of these gray heads will get the Jump the Shark thing now, do you?

Anonymous said...

R-ut r-oh.

Did you see today's news?

Brutus Beefcake said...

Your a regular soothsayer! Is that was soothsayer means: one who sees the future?

Want to go to Foxwoods with me tonight? Please? lol

Eco-local Guy said...

If Saratoga was geographically disconnected from other places, there might be a good chance of the Borders space being snatched up by a competitor (B&N)or other national chain. But, most of the national's are already nearby at exit 15, with easy highway access. Therefore, there is really no player on the national retail scene that would want the space. And it's to big for a local entrepreneur to take a chance on. One option is to break it up into a mini-mall, a la 'The Marketplace" across the street, giving the little guys a smaller bite to chew on (hey, how about another cupcake store?). Or, it could be leveled and made into a parking garage - more parking on Broadway is desperately needed, or, sell it to a developer to make into condos for the steady supply of gray-brainers who want to live downtown. The restaurants and retailers will love this option the best!

Nanoburgh? said...

eco dude,

I tend to agree. The 'break it up' into smaller bites might be the odds-on favorite for the most likely outcome,

But do not rule out a single chain coming in, however. Your points are legit, but Saratoga does tend to act as an exception when it comes to urban trends.

Lomgshot possibilities could include a regional restaranteur taking a shot -- think something like the Mazzone empire.

Carm said...

The fun has begun. Go ahead and takle a look at the feedback on the Saratogain's web site on this speculation. I know, I just just made you puke, didn't I?

You've got commentators acutally pushing the "tear it down and make a parking lot" position and being absolutley serious about it!

Not to mention the expected and predicted repsonses like this one:

"I think the store is the right size for an Apple store, Crate & Barrel, or Pottery Barn. While I would love a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods in town, I think those would be better located in Congress Plaza where there is more parking. "