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Proctors Theatre CEO walks crowd through building an arts economy

August 25, 2017
By AARON CERBONE - For the News ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Dozens of North Country artists, business owners and residents met Tuesday, Aug. 22 to discuss how to use the arts as an economic driver in downtown Saranac Lake.

The two-part meeting began with a talk called "The Creative Economy: Re-imagining Our Rural Downtowns" from Philip Morris, the CEO of Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. He was hired by Proctors in 2002 as the region struggled and the theater faced a daunting future.

Roaming the aisles of the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium, Morris recalled overseeing the renewal of Schenectady's downtown economy, arts community and Proctors. Since his success in bringing money and visitors back to a struggling Schenectady, Morris told the audience about what he learned from using an artistic institution to bring economic stability to a city.

"Somehow my life ended up being about downtowns," Morris said.

Schenectady is vastly different from Saranac Lake. A larger city connected to Albany, the economic and geographic factors it faces are not the same as in the remote Adirondacks. However, Morris said the same principles and broad ideas apply when trying to improve a downtown through the arts.

A uniting thread throughout his talk was working with what is already there and staying authentic to the area, using people and resources.

"It is an endless effort of learning what skills are in your backyard," Morris said.

Hospitality is one of these backyard skills put to good use at Proctors. A Downtown Ambassador program gives hospitality training to alcohol and drug abusers, providing them with what may be their first employment as they walk visitors to the city across streets and give them directions and suggestions for their time in Schenectady.

"We looked at the neighborhood and said, 'Look, we're not going to ask people to leave. These are our neighbors. It matters. Let's take a gamble,'" Morris said.

Morris said 30 out of the approximately 100 ambassadors employed in past years have gone on to find full-time jobs.

He said the unique architecture of a downtown area should determine what actions are taken. Morris gave the example of an arcade in Schenectady which would not benefit from having an entrance fee. He advised the crowd to avoid countering the architecture already set up and said investments and additions will be needed for major change.

Through building a heating and chilling plant at the theater location, Proctors was able to have no utility cost and supply reduced utility spending for 22 neighboring buildings in downtown by 25 to 30 percent. This was an incentive for businesses to move into vacant locations near Proctors.

After Morris' talk, a roundtable discussion moderated by North Country Public Radio Station Manager Ellen Rocco was held with panelists Jill Breit of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York, Amy Catania of Historic Saranac Lake, Joshua Kretser of The Strand Center for the Arts and Aaron Woolf, who owns the Deer's Head Inn in Elizabethtown.



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