Schenectady County

Effort seeks a jolt of ElectriCity

Schenectady’s downtown is so busy now that local leaders couldn’t find a quiet place to hold a noont

Schenectady’s downtown is so busy now that local leaders couldn’t find a quiet place to hold a noontime press conference Thursday.

But the crush of people squeezing past to buy lunch or listen to live jazz music was almost fitting. After all, leaders were there to celebrate the fact that Schenectady’s main drag is no longer a ghost town.

“As you can see, we’ve come a long way,” said Harry Apkarian, who started the 440 State Street organization 14 years ago.

The group created the annual Kids Fest, started arts incubators and worked with Proctors to provide low-cost art studios on Jay Street.

“Perhaps the most important goal we’ve met is our effort to generate foot traffic,” Apkarian said.

He gestured to the audience of 70-plus listeners at the nearby jazz concert at the Center City plaza. Shouting over the music, he said, “The best news is, it ain’t over yet, folks. There’s more to come.”

Thursday’s announcement begins a change in his group’s goals. Always interested in helping downtown, the group will now work toward more concrete steps rather than the perception-changing events that marked the early years.

Member Karen Johnson, a former mayor and now a member of the Democratic majority on the county Legislature, recalled that the group started Kids Fest simply to convince visitors that they could walk downtown safely.

Nowadays, festivals are created to draw customers to the downtown establishments while also offering free and interesting events to the public. But back then, the situation was grim.

“Last year, we had every business doing business during the Kids Fest, where 14 years ago, there were hardly any businesses,” Johnson said. “The main motive was to make people think the downtown was fun and safe.”

Apkarian said those events have served their purpose. Now, he said, it’s time to focus on building a retail base downtown.

“We’re doing a lot of things down here that look good, make people feel good. You could call it cosmetics,” Apkarian said. “We need job creation. We need mercantile establishments. But we’ve created the excitement. We’ve created an environment for it.”

The Metroplex Development Authority is now focusing on that as well. Chairman Ray Gillen has said he’s no longer recruiting food vendors and is instead meeting with larger retailers, including a toy store.

As 440 State Street revamps for its new goals, it has taken on a new name: ElectriCity Arts & Entertainment District.

The name is based on Schenectady’s appellation as the Electric City. When the new spelling was unveiled Thursday, many politicians couldn’t resist obvious puns about “electricity” in the downtown, and it was clear that the slogan had at least struck a humorous chord.

Members hope the name will catch on in a way that 440 State Street never did. They also hope the entire downtown will be known by the new title.

In addition to helping market the area to retailers, the group also intends to recruit more artists and mentor them so they stand a chance of making a living with their art.

“Some things they may not be good at — selling their art, marketing — we want to advise them. We want them to succeed,” Apkarian said, noting that 440 State Street worked with 100 to 200 artists in 14 years. Many of them did not attain financial success.

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