I took a road trip this week to check out some of the upstate ‘competition’ in the New York City second home market. I hear all these places mentioned, and realized I’ve never seen them. So I went first to Saratoga Springs, and then worked my way up to Lake George and Lake Placid in the Adirondacks and wound my way back via Tupper Lake and Long Lake. It was very interesting. In the coming days, I’m going to write a post or two about the Adirondack lakes. But first I want to share my thoughts about Saratoga Springs.
I found the city quite delightful. The Saratoga Spa state park (with the Gideon Putnam Hotel and the Roosevelt Spa and Baths) is an Edwardian era gem with a beautiful golf course. The 3 or 4 blocks of Broadway downtown are lined with good restaurants, most with outdoor cafes. There are a number of new upscale condo/apartment blocks just off of Broadway, and offices for MorganStanley and other brokerages shout that there is money in this town.
There are enough hotel rooms in the city center to support a thriving small convention business. (Though apart from the Gideon Putnam Hotel, there is not real resort here.) When I was sitting at a cafe having dinner, a couple of hundred New York State auto parts dealers (and their spouses) were strolling to the small convention center. Saratoga’s location is certainly a benefit in this respect, 30 miles north of Albany (and a great compromise for statewide New York groups that have to please both upstate and downstate constituencies.)
The overall experience was very pleasant and, well, genteel. But I found the retail to be a bit blah. The big stores downtown were Banana Republic, the Gap and Border Books, something available in most good suburban locales. There weren’t a lot of funky local retailers, and I didn’t see a good bakery or pastry shop. On Monday morning, I walked over to the Arts District about 4 or 5 blocks off Broadway, to find 4 or 5 small galleries (all shuttered, because it was a Monday and sort of off-season.) Glancing through the windows, a lot of the art was ‘horse related’ (Saratoga is a major summer horse destination), but I didn’t see much particularly interesting or edgy art. I’ve seen much more interesting work in the small galleries and shows here in Sullivan County. I think that the art in the galleries reflects Saratoga’s positioning, a bit stodgy. The summer scene focuses around horse racing, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet. All venerable activities to be sure, but not at the cusp of hip. This is Ralph Lauren Polo country, not a country outpost for Lower East Siders.
The biggest surprise to me about Saratoga Springs was the terrain. I was expecting a village nestled in an Alpine Valley (OK, so I don’t know my geography that well. At least I can find Britain on a map!) But there aren’t any mountains around Saratoga; they start about 20 or 30 miles north. Its flat!
One evening I was walking my dog in Congress Park, a gem of a park in the middle of the city designed by Frederick Olmstead. I met up with a couple walking their dog. The husband, it turns out, was an art historian at Skidmore College (the local college) and very knowledgeable about the area. He and his wife took me on a little tour of the park, which was very interesting. I asked him if Saratoga Springs had been able to remain a classy resort area because of the horse people. His response surprised me. "No," he said, "when I first came here Saratoga had fallen on hard times. There were lots of boarded up stores on Broadway and you could pick up one of the decrepit Victorian era mansions for a song." I asked him about the impact of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1966. He commented that the impact was positive but not immediate, and it took a few decades for Saratoga to regain its cachet.
I looked at Broadway in Saratoga Springs, with every storefront leased, cafes filled with diners and happy people strolling back and forth. I couldn’t help but think of Braodway in Monticello here. The length is about the same, the building stock very similar. Could Broadway in Monticello every be as appealing a place as Broadway in Saratoga — in my lifetime? I hear old salts recount tales of the heyday of the Catskills, when Liberty and Monticello were the places to be on a Saturday night. When both villages were lined with fancy retailers and restaurants.
When you look at the basic ingredients, we have a lot going for us. We have not one, but two world-ranked golf courses (at the Concord and Grossingers). We now have Bethel Woods. We have mountains. And we’re 2 hours from NYC, not 3 1/2 like Saratoga. OK, Saratoga has better access, just off the NY Thruway and 30 miles north of Albany. And its restaurants, shops and performance venues can pull from the large summer communities on Lake George. But then I come back to the fact that we’re 2 hours from New York City.
If Saratoga Springs could turn itself around, so can we! I gotta tell you, after I saw Saratoga (and heard about their transformation) I came away with a lot of hope. If I squint, maybe I can envision a new Broadway in Monticello. But a different Broadway than in Saratoga Springs, more likely to make the cover of "Domino" or "Details" than "Horse and Rider".