HUDSON—Positioning the arts and a cultural life as a core strength of community development was the theme of Columbia County’s Creative Economy: Arts, Culture & Tourism Forum held at Hudson Hall on December 8.
Throughout the morning event, Gary Schiro, outgoing executive director of the Hudson Opera House, was saluted for the work he has done there. When Mr. Schiro was hired in 1998 as the first executive director, many at the time considered him the “babysitter of a white elephant with an uncertain future,” said Tony Jones, board president of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), which presented the event.
Mr. Schiro did not dispute that assessment, noting in his speech welcoming attendees that “20 years ago, this entire block was abandoned. No one then understood the impact of a creative economy.” But thanks to diverse programming for residents and visitors of all ages, the nay-sayers were proven wrong.
Most recently, Mr. Schiro led an $8.5-million capital campaign that resulted in the renovation and reopening of the historic Hudson Hall on the second floor of the Opera House.
When institutions like Hudson Hall thrive, they create a place where people want to live, said Mr. Jones.
After Mr. Schiro’s welcome, the Forum consisted of opening remarks by F. Michael Tucker, president and CEO of the CEDC; a keynote address by Sarah Calderon, managing director of ArtPlace America; and a panel discussion moderated by Maureen Sager, director of Upstate Alliance for Creative Economy.
Panelists were Melissa Auf de Maur, co-founder and director of Basilica Hudson; Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors (aka Proctor’s Theatre) in Schenectady; and George A. Wachtel, president of Audience Research and Analysis.
“What if the arts came to the table, not with their deficits but with their strengths, their artists?” asked Ms. Calderon in her keynote. “Every area may not have a waterfront, but every area has artists.”
In a PowerPoint presentation, she reviewed successful arts efforts in Denver, Detroit and St. Paul, and also in southwest Virginia; Wilson, NC (population just under 50,000); and Sauk County, WI (about 9,000 residents). She described how these successes happened, and how full-time residents benefited from them and took part in them.
“Philip started this conversation in Schenectady,” said Ms. Sager, referring to Mr. Morris as she introduced the panelists.
“It’s about mission,” said Mr. Morris. “Our community [downtown Schenectady] was dead, with less than 5% occupied property in 2002, because of the loss of GE” when he arrived at Proctors. The community had tried “silver bullet” approaches he said, and “those efforts all failed.”
In contrast, said Mr. Morris, Proctors engaged the community, such as restaurateurs and artists, “to do another plan.”
“Today,” he said, “there is only one national chain—a Subway, locally owned—in a downtown that is 100% occupied with artists’ housing, coffee shops” and more. “We drove it ourselves, he said of Proctors and its neighbors. You are only as good as your neighborhood.”
Proctors decided to be its own general contractor, “in order to keep it local,” said Mr. Morris. Since 2002 the venue has done $50 million in construction; $14 million more is planned for the next few years. “We have relationships with electricians, HVAC contractors, sound engineers—everything we try to do has a relationship, or we don’t spend that dollar.”
When downtown needed high-speed broadband, Proctors provided it, for itself and eight other businesses. The venue also provides heating and cooling for its own facility and 22 additional buildings. “That grosses almost $1.5 million a year, and it reduced our carbon output tremendously,” said Mr. Morris.
Downtown garbage pickup was unreliable, so Proctor’s installed two compactors and two recycling centers.
“What we can agree to do together, we can do, and do better than if we did it on our own,” he said. Downtown artists and merchants meet alternate Thursdays—about 400 meetings at this point—to “talk about what’s happened and what needs to happen.”
When the Rivers Casino and Resort was located on Schenectady’s waterfront, Mr. Morris had Proctors get the contract to book all the casino’s performance events.
Involving full-time residents in Proctors “is a continuing effort,” he said. “I always say yes.” He started with educational programs for children (as did the Hudson Opera House). Today, for example, “90 kids come to Proctor’s three times a week to learn an instrument, and the dignity of working together.”
As for civic engagement, “you name it and we stick our nose in it,” said Mr. Morris. When the Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013, “we had public forums in our building with the police department and the community.”
After the first shooting in a movie theater that gained national attention, “we brought the sheriff, the police and the community to talk.” Proctor’s now offers active shooter preparedness training annually.
All of this brings adults into the space, as does Proctors’ Ambassador Program. Finding the venue located near the City Mission, Mr. Morris began to hire the residents there, at $12 per hour, to welcome people to Proctors.
“About a third of them—25 a year—go on to full-time work, hired by someone else,” he said. “It’s a remarkable transition from desperation to participation. Our neighbors who are not buying $60 to $80 tickets are part of us.”
Asked about the venue’s relationship with its city and county, Mr. Morris said Schenectady County had invested $1 million 18 years ago and donated an abandoned department store that Proctors uses as an education center and smaller theater. Schenectady County has a population of almost 155,000 in 209 square miles.
The city is “not engaged financially,” said Mr. Morris, “but the city’s efforts to make things work have helped.” He cited snowplow drivers and police officers as examples. The city has a population of just over 66,000.
In contrast, Columbia County has about 63,000 residents spread over 648 square miles. Its largest municipality is Kinderhook, with about 8,500 residents. Hudson, with about 6,700 residents, ranks second.
“Hudson is a very complicated demographic,” said Ms. Auf der Maur. “In many areas people can’t afford the arts.” She grew up in Montreal, in a family that had “no money,” she said, “but in Montreal the arts were embedded into school and the community.”
In five years, Ms. Auf der Maur, a musician and photographer, and her husband/partner, filmmaker Tony Stone, have raised attendance at their “destination programming” from 5,000 to 35,000. The largest draw is their anti-Black Friday Farm & Flea Market.
And in a different business model, Basilica Hudson now has a thriving wedding business, said Ms. Auf der Mar. “It wasn’t our goal, but without it, we can’t support the avant-garde voices” presented at Basilica.
“It’s not my dream,” she said of the “accidental” business model, “but what’s so bad about giving a platform to love?”