Together Ever After: The Lasting Effect COVID-19 Will Have on Saratoga Springs

On March 13, 2020 at 3pm, the heads of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, Discover Saratoga, the Saratoga Springs City Center, the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership and the Saratoga Preservation Foundation—that is, Todd Shimkus, Darryl Leggieri, Ryan McMahon, Deann Devitt, Shelby Schneider and Samantha Bosshart, respectively—met at Wheatfields in Downtown Saratoga. “We knew some sort of shutdown was about to occur,” says Shimkus. “We weren’t entirely sure what was going to happen, but the six of us agreed that we would work together—that if anybody called us, we were all going to help.” Though the six of them didn’t know it at the time, that impromptu gathering would morph into a standing Friday meeting that took place every week throughout the worst months of the pandemic, and still remains on their calendars today. (Schneider has since moved on to become deputy director of the New York State Economic Development Council, but still catches up with the group when she’s in town).

It was from those weekly meetings that a multitude of crucial citywide campaigns sprang, ones that would help keep the city ticking during its most desperate moments. Says Shimkus: “The Stronger Together campaign, the Save Our Locals campaign, the effort to expand the use of outdoor seating for restaurants, the switch [from Restaurant Week] to the Takeout Month promotion that we did, the recovery kits we distributed to businesses as they reopened, the countywide ribbon cutting we did to celebrate the reopening of our economy in June…all those ideas came together in the meetings that we had on those Fridays.” 

The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce coordinated a county-wide ribbon-cutting to celebrate the reopening of the economy in June 2020.

And those were just the public-facing initiatives. Behind the scenes, the six city leaders teamed up with Saratoga Hospital to offer local superintendents and restaurant owners informational Zoom sessions with the hospital’s COVID-19 team. Saratoga’s largest civic organizations—the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), New York Racing Association (NYRA), the Saratoga Regional YMCA, Live Nation, Skidmore College and Saratoga Casino Hotel—were also beneficiaries of that Zoom-based initiative. Behind the scenes, the Chamber and Prosperity Partnership linked up to share office space. And the Chamber and City Center teamed up with Discover Saratoga to rehire a laid-off administrative staffer, whose salary is now split by the three organizations. To be blunt: That would have been completely unheard of pre-COVID.

In addition, the Chamber also facilitated partnerships between businesses that wouldn’t have otherwise linked up. “On March 16, I gave out my cell phone number to 10,000 people in an email,” Shimkus says. “And let me just say, I got a lot of phone calls and text messages. One of those calls was from Max Oswald from Northway Brewing.” That call helped kick off Brewnited, an initiative that brought six area breweries together to provide financial assistance, by way of direct payments, to tipped service workers who were out of a job. Brewnited was funded by sales of the beer Negative Input, a collaboration between the sextet; donations from the public; and one big corporate donation. “When Max called me, he was looking for help organizing a not-for-profit,” Shimkus says. “I got a call a couple weeks later from the Ball Corporation, and they had some funds set aside to help hospitality workers and were looking for a place to donate that money.” Thanks to a few simple phone calls, Ball has since donated $20,000 to Brewnited. 

Another industry crucial to Saratoga’s survival that got the partnership treatment it badly needed was the arts, thanks to out-of-the-box thinking by many of its local leaders. “People like Todd Shimkus and Darryl Leggieri have been really wonderful partners,” says Saratoga Arts’ Louise Kerr, who came on board as executive director in August 2020. “They see that we can have our restaurants and our hotels full by collaborating and linking up arts organizations.” Coincidentally, Kerr took the reins of the nonprofit at a time when Saratoga’s art institutions were hungry for inter-organization collaboration, but when entire seasons were being canceled. The arts were teeter-tottering on the brink—and Kerr was in lockstep with her arts compatriots on finding a solution. “Elizabeth Sobol at SPAC and Ian Berry at the Tang immediately came to me and said, ‘Yes, we have the same idea,’” says Kerr. “We’re talking about every organization that is part of the arts being accommodated, taken care of and part of an umbrella that helps flatten hierarchy and helps equitable distribution of funding. The power that we have right now is by all of us connecting together. I definitely feel the beginnings of this community hub, which is my ultimate goal, where we’re collaborating rather than competing.”

Indeed, in the past year, Saratoga has seen unprecedented alliances form between arts organizations that beforehand had dueling seasons or concert schedules. For one, SPAC lent its amphitheater to Opera Saratoga for performances of its staging of Man of La Mancha when the Spa Little Theater, the opera’s normal summer home, pro
ed too small to safely accommodate both performers and crowds. Opera Saratoga also teamed up with Caffè Lena to present America Sings, a series of free, livestreamed concerts that sought to amplify the voices of BIPOC artists. And this past September, Home Made Theater, which also usually performs at the Spa Little Theater, announced it would be holding its 2021-22 season performances in the Dee Sarno Theater at Saratoga Arts. 

Independent curator Lisa Kolosek and Tang Director Ian Berry at a planning session for All Together Now. (Dan Lubbers)

Then there’s the big one—the arts partnership to end (or continue?) all arts partnerships. “It started pre-COVID,” begins Ian Berry, Dayton director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College. “The Tang turned 20 in the fall of 2020, so even more than a year before that we had started planning for our anniversary season. I had the idea to celebrate our collection. A lot of people see the Tang as a place to go for exhibitions, but not as many people see us for our collection, because it’s not always out on view. I had an idea—what if we curated exhibitions all over town, almost like a gift to the town for our anniversary?”

Enter All Together Now, a region-wide initiative that saw pieces from the Tang’s permanent collection on display at six other venues—The Hyde Collection, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, Saratoga Arts, the Saratoga County History Center, Yaddo and SPAC—as well as in an exhibition alongside objects from the Shaker Museum at the Tang itself. (An exhibition of postcards by American painter Ellsworth Kelly at the Tang was part of the project, too.) The All Together Now exhibitions mainly ran during the summer and fall, with the racing museum’s Muybridge and Motion: Selections from the Tang Teaching Museum Collection extending through January 2, 2022. “The racing museum starts their tour talking about Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs in The Horse in Motion, but they don’t have one of those photographs in their collection,” Berry says. “We had more than one in our collection at the Tang. It’s so clear and obvious that that was a great thing for us to share.”

And while the idea of All Together Now was technically born in pre-COVID times, the pandemic undeniably reinforced its significance. “The words take on so much more of an intense meaning,” Berry says. “‘All Together Now’ means helping each other through this unprecedented time. At the beginning, it meant more of a community togetherness, but now it’s sort of an essential-support rallying call—you know, we’re going to emerge ‘all together.’ None of us wanted this COVID year to happen in any way. But some of the ways we’re now paying attention and caring for each other in our community are really important.” 

Shelters of Saratoga joined forces with eight other organizations to better serve Saratoga’s homeless population.

Though saving businesses and the arts was crucial to our city’s survival, Saratoga also had nothing short of a humanitarian crisis on its hands in regards to its homeless population during COVID. “The [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] CARES Act funding was authorized in March of 2020,” says Andy Gilpin, executive director of CAPTAIN Community Human Services. “One of its focuses was around housing and homelessness as a way to prevent and keep people safe from COVID.” The federal CARES Act implemented a variety of programs to address COVID-related issues. And a sizable (in small-town terms) portion of its funding—just under $2.5 million—found its way to Saratoga County’s Department of Social Services (DSS), which tasked CAPTAIN, a local nonprofit that addresses everything from homelessness and poverty to human trafficking, with taking the lead on its distribution. To do that, CAPTAIN and the DSS formed a coalition of nine local organizations—Legal Aid of NENY, Healing Springs, the Salvation Army, Shelters of Saratoga, Transitional Services Association, Veterans and Community Housing Coalition (VCHC) and Wellspring (plus CAPTAIN and DSS)—and got things rolling. 

“What was born out of this,” Gilpin says, “were ideas that we’ve never been able to pursue before because there wasn’t enough funding, plus an amazing amount of collaboration between these nine organizations in serving so many different populations, from veterans to domestic violence survivors, chronically homeless people, families, children…the whole nine yards. Because of this model, we’re meeting monthly as a group, which we had never done before, to discuss how to impact the community. We’re seeing communication we’ve never had before. Silos that were established over years and years have now started to break down, and we’re just collectively working together.” 

That team-up, and the funding that made it possible, has allowed for a litany of programs that benefit Saratoga County’s homeless population. For one, people experiencing homelessness who test positive for COVID can now quarantine in a hotel or motel—while the coalition agencies work to secure more permanent housing for them. It has also allowed CAPTAIN, which did street outreach before the CARES Act, to help train other organizations, including Healing Springs, which specializes in working with people with substance abuse issues, in street outreach. And it has allowed CAPTAIN to leverage VCHC’s experience in dealing with homeless veterans to serve different populations. “We’ve never had those conversations with VCHC before,” Gilpin says. “The power of all of us working together is getting people housed.”

Clearly, the pandemic has played an instrumental role in uniting businesses and organizations, to the undeniable benefit of the Saratoga community at large. But how will that look long term? Once the pandemic is over, will all of these leaders just go back to their own silos, never to collaborate again? Everyone I interviewed for this story agrees that these partnerships have staying power, but maybe the Tang’s Ian Berry puts it best: “I think the name ‘All Together Now’ is a way to think about the lastingness of this—the ways that we’ll be connected as institutions well beyond the [exhibitions]. This moment really pushed us together to meet each other in a different way. And I think these kinds of collaborations are going to continue.”  

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