During the height of lockdown, with 77 days still to go before Saratoga Race Course was set to open its annual summer meet on July 16, 2020, Charles V. Wait, Sr., chairman of the board of directors at the Adirondack Trust Company—who had previously served on the board of the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for three decades and had run the Adirondack Trust Company for even longer—published a letter directed at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking him to consider allowing a limited number of spectators into the track. Just days earlier, the governor had singled out Saratoga’s racetrack as an “attractive nuisance,” or large venue that, assuming his predictions were correct, would quickly transform into a giant petri dish if fans were allowed in, sending the region’s (and state’s) COVID-19 infection rates through the roof. “There is such a pent-up demand to get out of the house and do something,” said Cuomo at the time. “If you open the Saratoga racetrack, I guarantee you [see] the highest attendance in [its] history.” Any other year—any other year—a record number of racing fans would’ve meant pay dirt for the area. But this year, the year a deadly virus swept across New York and felled more than 30,000 people—more than 175,000 and counting nationwide—record numbers of fans could’ve only led, in the governor’s mind, to more sickness and death.
If anyone in Saratoga Springs was best suited to address the city’s greatest modern-day dilemma—and defend its honor to the head of the state—it was Wait. Having been an integral part of Saratoga’s community since the early ’70s, when he was working at his father’s bank and downtown was a jumble of vacant storefronts, Wait was keenly aware of what a spectator-less track season might mean for the city at large. Still a month before Cuomo’s Reopening Plan kicked off and on a day that reported 4,663 new cases statewide, Wait was the Saratogian with the experience and gravitas to appeal to the Governor about keeping future options open even if things then looked bleak. Next, he offered the reassurance we didn’t know we needed. “We agree that public health protection must come first,” he wrote, “and in the event that it is demonstrably unsafe to allow the public at the track this summer, it is important for us to keep things in perspective. Saratoga has survived worse, and it will survive this. Saratoga and the track survived the Civil War and the Great Depression. During World War II, racing was suspended for three years, and in the 1950s, casino gambling was shut down. The great people of this community came together during each of these challenges, and Saratoga will continue to thrive once the pandemic has run its course.”
Saratogians are now privy to what has happened since Wait’s letter made the rounds. At press time, COVID-19 cases and deaths have flattened out considerably in New York—but have continued to spike in a number of other states. Not a single fan has set foot in the track, both the classical and Live Nation seasons have been canceled at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), bars and restaurants have reopened but to drastically reduced capacity, and downtown boutiques and all other manner of commerce have seen greatly reduced foot traffic. But paraphrasing Wait’s letter, it could’ve been a lot worse, and Saratoga is now in survival mode—and in many cases, thriving, despite the restrictions. “I’m very encouraged by the people that we’re seeing in Downtown Saratoga now, and I think with Skidmore coming back, that will help,” Wait told me on August 11. “Nobody’s flush, but they’re surviving, and I think they’ll continue to survive.”
Of course, when Wait published that letter on May 1, he hadn’t been running the Adirondack Trust for years. But it was in highly capable hands.
Wait’s eldest son, 38-year-old Charles V. Wait, Jr., took over as president and CEO of the Adirondack Trust this past February, succeeding Stephan von Schenk, who had assumed the role of president in 2014 after the elder Wait stepped down (von Schenk didn’t add CEO to his title until 2017). Of course, no one could’ve predicted the trial-by-conflagration that awaited the younger Wait. “It’s been a little bit crazy,” he says, of his first several months on the job. “Nobody wants to live in times like these, but you don’t get to decide that. The only thing you get to decide—and I’m paraphrasing Gandalf [from Lord of the Rings] here—is what you do with the time you’re given.” Wait is by no means a newbie to the family business. Prior to college, he worked as a teller at his father’s bank but remembers telling patrons that he wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in banking. When he entered Cornell University in 2000, he had his sights set on becoming a clinical psychologist and got the necessary bachelor’s degree. But after sitting in on just one graduate seminar, he realized that he wasn’t cut out for it after all. So, he got a law degree. That left turn proved short-lived as well. “Here,” Wait says, referring to the bank, “there’s a sense of purpose. I can go downtown and see people whose businesses this bank has helped build and homes we’ve helped get, and you can see the development of the community. That’s hard to see when you’re a litigator.” And in an about-face that would’ve probably shocked his much younger bank-teller self, Wait officially joined the Adirondack Trust in 2009 as vice president of legal and regulatory affairs and was eventually promoted to executive vice president in 2013, before ascending to his current position earlier this year.
Despite the pandemic, Wait’s very much a cup-half-full kind of guy. “As a bank, you’re set up favorably for this type of situation, because you’ve got a drive-through, a walk-up window, ATMs and online transactions,” he says. “So you can continue to service your customers while at the same time, protect them from the pandemic.” Although the bank and its 250 employees were deemed “essential” from the get-go, when the majority of the state and its businesses shut down, the Broadway bank made its lobby open by appointment only and put in place all of the health/safety protocols that any other Saratoga business has had to install. (It also has an additional 12 branches throughout the area.) Walk in the front door of its flagship 473 Broadway branch, for instance, and you’ll find employees decked out in PPE, plastic barriers between tellers and customers, and hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere. The bank even had Saratoga Hospital come in and determine whether it was meeting all of its COVID-19 safety protocols. “My number one focus throughout this has been the safety of the employees and customers,” Wait says. “Because you can’t help people if you don’t have healthy people.”
Many of those customers that have relied most acutely on the bank during these particularly trying times have been Saratoga’s small businesses—including saratoga living. And the bank’s been right in the middle of the malaise, helping administer multiple millions of dollars of the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, one of which our company secured. “The nice thing about us is that we’re an SBA lender to begin with,” says Wait, “so we have some people who are very familiar with the SBA and the systems used to process these loans. We actually translated some of the experience from the disaster lending that the SBA did back in 2008 and parlayed that into the ability to get these loans done quite quickly. So we had a lot of happy customers.” (Needless to say, that includes us, too.) In all, the bank funded $102.5 million worth of PPP loans for local businesses.
Certainly, the Adirondack Trust didn’t just dole out PPP loans and rest on its laurels; it has a vested interest in making sure that Saratoga survives the crisis. And it’s personal for Wait; he’s a native Saratogian and the fourth generation of Wait to head up the bank, joining his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who have all held the position during the bank’s 119-year history. So, in a way, Wait is keeping up his end of the bargain for the “family business”—though he’s quick to define it more as a hybrid business, with all of the policies, procedures and structures that any big New York City bank might have, but with the personal touch that would be all but impossible for that same Big Apple bank to pull off. “We have what I like to call unprecedented access to management and decision-makers,” says Wait. In other words, he doesn’t have some corner office with a champagne cooler, Peloton bike and shower in it; he actually sits at a desk on a balcony overlooking the bank’s Broadway headquarters, and he’s very much approachable. “I can make you a decision very quickly,” he says. “It’s much harder to do that at the bigger banks.” That Saratoga-first ethos runs even deeper for Wait. “I feel a responsibility to this community,” he says. Wait then paraphrases a letter from the bank’s founder, Edgar T. Brackett, to management in 1916, which basically said, yes, the purpose of the bank is to make money for its stockholders, but it’s also to build out Saratoga’s community. “We [still stick] to that philosophy today,” says Wait. “I very much believe in community development.”
That’s a good thing, because the bank’s been community-building for its entire history and has helped Saratoga become the economic powerhouse that it is today. Five years after the bank’s founding in 1901, Brackett was able to coax Clark Textile to the city, bringing year-round jobs to a community that had been largely focused on its seasonal racetrack. Wait’s great-grandfather, Newman E. Wait, Sr., helped finance Skidmore College in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when it was in trouble of going out of business. The Adirondack Trust also financed the Holiday Inn, which opened in 1964 and became the city’s first modern-era hotel; helped put together the funding package for the Saratoga City Center in 1965; and then, of course, financed SPAC, which opened its doors a year later, adding rocket fuel to an already burgeoning Saratoga arts scene (you can thank Wait’s grandfather, Newman E. “Pete” Wait, Jr., for that trio of institutions). Additionally, the bank played an integral role in the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce’s so-called “Plan of Action” in the early ’70s, which both Wait’s father and Stewart’s Shops’ William “Bill” Dake were involved in, helping to revitalize Downtown Saratoga. (The Plan took decades to come to fruition, but it indubitably worked.) And more recently, in 2009, the bank established its ATC Community Fund to help support local nonprofit organizations, such as Saratoga’s outpost of the Salvation Army, Saratoga WarHorse and the SNACpack Program (there are countless others).
It’s a little too early for Wait to start predicting what a post-pandemic Saratoga might look like—and just how bad the economic fallout might be—but he believes strongly that the foundation his predecessors left him, as well as the bank’s disaster recovery plan and its ability to deftly react to adversity, has been the key to its survival. That, and the personnel. “It’s about having the right people, and we have them,” he says. Speaking of which, Wait and his wife have two young children, a boy and a girl. And it begs the question: Will one of them eventually succeed him? “Whether they want to do this or not, I have no idea,” he says. “But my personal philosophy is let kids do what they want.” So, if there happens to be no young Wait in the waiting, how would he feel about ending the legacy? “The best person to do [the job],” he insists, “will be the person who runs the bank.”
4 Questions With…Charles V. Wait, Jr., president and CEO, Adirondack Trust Company
What is the most “Saratoga” thing about Saratoga?
Its adaptability. Saratoga’s always been a community that can pivot; that’s something we do very well.
What is the single most important thing that Saratoga needs to ensure its survival for years to come?
That’s easy–the ability to work together.
What is your favorite flavor of Stewart’s ice cream?
What’s your favorite Saratoga activity?
Going to concerts or walking in the park at SPAC. My favorite event now would be the Tchaikovsky Spectacular that closes out the Philadelphia Orchestra season.