The reality of the COVID-19 crisis first hit home for Saratoga’s business community on the most ominous of days this past March. “It was actually on a Friday the 13th when we recognized that the economy was starting to be shut down, the world was changing and people were really dying,” says Todd Shimkus, who’s been president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce for the past decade. That afternoon, Shimkus, a Saratoga transplant, who racked up years of experience in public policy in places such as Holden, MA (his hometown) and nearby Glens Falls, met with the leadership from five other influential business groups and entities in the area—Discover Saratoga, Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association (DBA), the Saratoga Springs City Center, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership and the Saratoga Economic Development Corporation—to discuss what they were going to do, collectively, to assist the region’s business community during the lockdown. “We decided,” he says, “that from that day forward we were going to collaborate to get our county’s economy, businesses and nonprofits that we all serve through this difficult period.”
That decisive, early action and collaborative spirit have helped Saratoga’s businesses and nonprofits weather the storm, though many still remain temporarily closed, even as the Capital Region has begun its phased reopening. (At press time, not a single Spa City business has closed permanently since the crisis began, per Shimkus.) A lot of that has had to do with communication: Shimkus and the Chamber have been a veritable breaking news outlet, keeping the community updated regularly on saratoga.org and sending out daily e-newsletters. The Chamber also had some early wins, transforming Saratoga Restaurant Week into one of the most effective business-savers to date, Take Out Week, which eventually morphed into Take Out Month. It has generated income that could’ve easily been lost for more than 100 participating restaurants and bars.
The Chamber and its business allies have kept the positive momentum going. Together, the group of six local organizations has partnered with the Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) to raise money to buy meals from local restaurants that are then delivered to frontline healthcare workers; and helped set up online donation portals for food pantries in the towns of Schuylerville and Malta (which have since raised more than $8,000). They’re even working to create a local supply chain of personal protective equipment. According to Shimkus, this network is going to be key in moving forward with the gradual process of reopening Saratoga’s businesses. “The six of us have finally been able to transition away from responding to the crisis—and all the trauma created by it—and move on to talking about restarting the local economy,” says Shimkus. The group met with 40 local leaders from the private sector and drafted an economic recovery plan, which was circulated toward the end of April. That business plan includes actual, physical small business recovery kits, which include a package of face masks, cleaning products, hand sanitizer and signage explaining new hygiene and safety rules for companies that had to close during the shutdown; as well as the rollout of a comprehensive survey on Saratoga County and its attractions, which Shimkus is particularly excited about. “This survey is going to [help] us target specific audiences,” he says, “who are more likely to be interested in coming to Saratoga for the things that are still happening here.”
Obviously, the elephant in the room is the fate of the Saratoga Race Course and Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) summer seasons. (At press time, SPAC had canceled its classical season; Live Nation, the majority of its big-ticket shows; and the track was still a go but without fans.) “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach, being patient as we see what’s possible this summer,” Shimkus says. “We have to hold out some hope that maybe a limited number of fans could be at the track, and perhaps not all shows are canceled at SPAC. At the same time, our coalition is talking with hotels, restaurants, attractions, artists, entertainers, stores and shops about a very different summer offering and how we might still attract people to our communities. We’ve learned more than anything to adapt and to be patient during this crisis.”