Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce president on bar closing times, cannabis and the holiday shopping season
The holiday season is always a busy one in the Saratoga Springs area, but this year there are new concerns about the downtown bar scene following a shootout around 3 a.m. on a recent Sunday. In the meantime, a new business is sprouting up in New York, after the first retail marijuana licenses were issued. To talk about all of that and more, WAMC's Ian Pickus spoke with Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. He says the holiday shopping season is off to a strong start.
You know what, I think the mood here, at least in Saratoga is positive. All signs, it doesn't matter what we look at, sales tax revenue, real estate, everything points to the fact that people are still spending money. They still want to visit here, they still want to shop here, dine here. We've got a great campaign going on. It's the third year in a row. It's called, Love Our Locals. We've actually incentivize people to shop at every local business in Saratoga County. So, if you do you just send an email to us with a receipt. As long as you spend $20.22 or more, you're entered to win literally $8,000 in gift cards that we're handing out over 10 weeks. So, we're pretty confident that this winter season, this holiday season is going to be really good for Saratoga.
Is the area Amazon-proof?
Yeah, I think we've coined the phrase Love Our locals, because around here, the community does. So, I think people were out on Black Friday, right in downtown Saratoga Springs on Small Business Saturday, they were in the village of Schuylerville and the village of Ballston Spa, we saw it personally. Yeah, I think people are trying to support their locals. Not that the convenience of what some of the online folks offer is hard to beat, the pricing is hard to beat but around here in Saratoga County, I think people understand our local businesses make us unique and special and they're the ones that actually volunteer and contribute to local charities and we've got to support them.
How important is this stretch of holiday shopping for the average local business?
I think it's second to summer around here. So, one of the things that I've noticed over the years, less so in the last couple, since we built the City Center Parking Garage, but I used to track where people were coming from based on the calls I got complaining about parking. In the summer, I would get calls from New Jersey and New York City and Boston. In the winter, right around the holidays, it was from Albany and Schenectady and Glen Falls. So, our Winter Market, our Holiday Market is more of a regional one, where people come up here, they shop, they love our downtown, they love our restaurants. We're sort of the region's downtown in many respects. In spite of what you may have read and what you might want to talk about next, it's a safe place and all these great local restaurants and shops here and in Schuylerville and Ballston Spa and other places in Saratoga attract people from the region. So, it's a fun time. We're looking forward to this holiday season.
Well, since you did mention it, what was your reaction to that wild scene of a shootout involving Saratoga Springs Police and an off-duty Rutland, Vermont, sheriff's deputy, which happened not far from Caroline Street, in the early morning hours of a Sunday?
The Monday morning right after that, all of the business groups here in town, Discover Saratoga, the DBA, the City Center, the Chamber, the Special Assessment District, all of the leaders of those organizations got together to condemn those activities, that behavior, and also offer praise to the police, the sheriff's department, state police, everybody who came, really to the city's rescue. We can't have this happen again. We've got to take steps now going forward to figure out how we make sure it doesn't happen. It was at 3am, nothing good ever happens after midnight. So here we were showing that, for sure. Generally, 99.9% of the time, Saratoga is an unbelievably safe place to be. but unfortunately, that point 0.1% happened right before the holidays and now we've just got to figure out where do we go from here.
Well, what do you think of the idea of rolling back the closing times for bars from 4 a.m. to maybe 2 a.m.?
I've been here now 13 years. This will be the fourth time this has been discussed. I think the easiest path. First of all, maybe I should say, I think people believe that the city controls that, and they don't. Under New York State law, it's actually the county. What our county has suggested, and I think this makes a ton of sense, is that the state legislature ought to allow local control. They've done it with cannabis. Local communities had the ability to opt in, or opt out to dispensaries with cannabis. So why not let local communities opt in or opt out to earlier or later bar closing hours? That makes sense to me. So hopefully, the city can move in that direction and get the state to make that change and then they would be able to go forward with whatever they chose, whatever they felt made the most sense. The relatively few incidents that we've had over the years, they're high profile because they're the exception to the rule, and we don't want them to happen but they do happen at different times of night. Some of the most egregious have been actually around 11 o'clock or midnight. So, there's no simple solution here but local control over bar hours, I think would be helpful to the city, and certainly would allow the mayor and the current city council to make those changes on their own, if that's what they chose to do.
Will the nightlife owners and industry around the Saratoga Springs bar scene go along with an earlier closing time?
You know, right now, many of them are voluntarily doing that. Right now, many of them have upped the effort on security within their facilities. One of the things that I think is really important is, again, the State Liquor Authority has tremendous power and discretion. So that, let's say in this incident, we find out we don't, we have no idea right now, right? Where this fight started, where this dispute, whatever it was, where it started. So, a bar, where a fight starts, even if it goes out into the street, that bar is still liable. But it's up to the SLA, to take control over that, and use that discretion, to make sure that the bars do a better job going forward. That's what happened to Gaffney’s. They took action against Gaffney’s and we had a much safer summer as a result of that. So, again, we don't know where this originated, but the State Liquor Authority when they find that out, hopefully, they will conduct their hearings, and take action against the individuals that caused this to happen.
Can the greater downtown business ecosystem survive an earlier closing time, if that were to become the local law in Saratoga Springs, thinking about all of the related businesses that are not bars that might be affected by losing two hours of primetime?
It is an interesting ecosystem. I love that word. You know what, we've had zero cancellations of hotel rooms, as we head into the future with what happened. My sense is that the bar closing time doesn't necessarily drive visitor choices. Nor does an incident like this scare anyone away. People love to come to Saratoga, based on all of the amenities that we have. Our economy survived the pandemic. We survived the early closures of bars and restaurants. Having to buy food, all the other things that happened and the closure itself. So, I think we're pretty resilient here. It's a special place that people love to spend time in. Whatever changes are made, modifications to ours or different security measures, I honestly don't think it will have any lasting detrimental impact.
Let me ask about cannabis. We have now seen the first three dozen licenses issued by the state for retail dispensaries. Is Saratoga County going to be a marijuana destination?
It's unclear. The way the state is going about doing this is unique and different. So, the cannabis dispensary licenses that they are now awarding, the process for where those dispensaries will be is being done separately. It’s sort of like Match.com, between dispensary licenses and property owners that are willing to lease space for that particular use. In fact, it's the state essentially, that signs a 10 year lease on the properties, and does all of the fit up. So, in Saratoga, there's definitely some property owners within the city, and then in a couple of the communities that have opted in, where there are property owners who are interested, and they're working with the state to go through that process. But I can't guarantee that we're going to end up with one of these dispensaries. Our property is different. It's not underutilized. In many cases, the pricing of it is completely different from the rest of the regional market, meaning it’s higher. So that makes it more challenging for us to find space that fits the criteria that the state has, that the state is willing to pay for. So hopefully, I think we want this amenity in Saratoga the same way we want breweries, distilleries, wineries, cigar shops, it’s what visitors have come to expect now in a resort area like ours. And so hopefully we have one. But again, the way the process was set up, we're certainly not guaranteed.
So, based on the initial round of licenses, there were four issued for the Capital Region. So far, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you're not entirely satisfied with where Saratoga County is so far in the process.
It's not that I'm not satisfied with it, it's that it's a very different process and I think it's been more challenging for us to find property owners that fit the criteria that the state's looking for, and are interested in this particular line of business. So, that's not on the state, they're doing this in just a very different fashion and believe me, there have been a number of us that have been working diligently to try to get property owners to go through this process with the state. So, we know firsthand, it's not the state that isn't willing to work with the property owners here, it's that we've got to have willing property owners with the type of property that makes sense for this under the state rules. So, this isn't, the difference here is we know of folks that went after dispensary licenses, that were also under the assumption that they had to find locations and in a couple of cases, the applicants found locations but that's not the way the state is doing this process.
So it’s kind of a “to be continued.”
It really is. I mean, you got to have a match between a dispensary license and a location. Since the two pieces of that puzzle are being selected differently, and not at the same time, it makes it a little more challenging. So, this is not like any other business where you get a license, and then you find property. This is you get a license, and then the state is trying to find the property for you. Very different.
In this case, priority is being given in the initial round to folks who had a past marijuana conviction under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. So, that's another variable to add into the mix.
Well, interestingly enough, I think we had quite a few applicants from Saratoga, who fit the criteria for the license, for the dispensary license. Our challenge has been finding property owners. The property owners don't have to have a conviction or anything like that. That's a completely different process that the state is using and that's why it's been more challenging for Saratoga. We just don't have a lot of vacant properties for commercial use that fit the criteria that the state has put up. We have plenty of people who fit the criteria to be a license holder, but we don't have a lot of property that fits the criteria for where these facilities can be.
I guess that's a good problem to have if you're the head of the County Chamber of Commerce.
Yeah, I mean, I can't complain about that. Right. I mean, you know, it's, we don't have a lot of vacant properties. We it's in our commercial sectors. So, yeah, I'd rather have that, that, that issue than the other.