When Mark Baker moved from Wisconsin in 1983 to become executive director of the yet-to-be-built Saratoga Springs City Center, he didn’t think he would be in upstate New York for very many years.
“I came thinking it would be a short stay,” said Baker, who is now president of the City Center and in his 28th year of service.
Baker, 60, was in Saratoga Springs for the ground breaking for the $4.9 million complex at 522 Broadway and watched the building go up and open in 1984. Over the past year Baker has also presided over its recently completed $16 million expansion and renovation.
The City Center transformed Saratoga Springs from the “Summer Place to Be” with its focus on the historic Saratoga thoroughbred horse racing meet to a year-round convention and tourism destination, according to city officials and business people.
“I had no idea where Saratoga was but I was interested in the process that an authority had been formed to build and operate [the center] as a business,” Baker said.
He had been president of a convention bureau in Eau Claire, Wis., before coming to Saratoga County. He grew up in Madison, Wis., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin (Stout).
Baker was impressed with the authority concept of a private-public partnership and also with community leaders such as the late Mayor Ellsworth Jones and Charles Wait, president of Adirondack Trust Co. and the first chairman of the City Center Authority.
In the first year of operation, only 24 conventions and shows were booked, but by 1985 some 60 shows and conventions came to town. Since that time the City Center has averaged at least 100 conventions and shows each year, creating a significant economic benefit for city businesses and generating sales tax revenue.
In 1999, the city became the owner of a debt-free City Center and received $3.9 million in cash through the authority-driven financial arrangement involving local investors.
“Mark has been instrumental both in his foresight and his patience,” said Michael Toohey, a local attorney who has been chairman of the City Center Authority for more than a decade. He said Baker has been involved in the center expansion and renovation since planning started some years ago.
“We wanted to take it to the next step,” Toohey said. “It’s different now, people want break-out space.”
Toohey said what has been remarkable about Baker and his staff is that they have kept the center open and conventions and shows rolling into the city while the major construction work was being done.
“Mark has been able to have the exterior of the convention center rebuilt around him and still kept the building open throughout,” Toohey said.
The expanded center now includes an additional 12,000 square feet of leasable meeting space on two levels facing the corner of Broadway and Ellsworth Jones Place (formerly Grove Street). The additional space allows the center to host multiple events in the new meeting halls as well as in the 20,000-square-foot main hall.
Even with the front and side of the City Center a construction zone, its staff was able to book more than 100 events in 2010 and 106 in 2009. “We want to grow that number by 40 percent in the next three years,” Baker said. He also expects to “grow the number of days with multiple events” that people spend at the facility.
The City Center caters to state trade associations and those representing teachers, nurses, librarians and school administrators. Baker said the market for the facility is one-third trade association conventions, one-third trade shows, and one-third special events like banquets, boxing and receptions. Many of the associations and other groups book their conventions and events three, four or even five years in advance.
“We see a massive growth in weddings,” Baker said, noting that the two-story expansion with wall-to-wall windows facing Broadway is a perfect location. The second-floor space is 6,000 square feet and the first floor is 5,000 square feet. Each of the new spaces have their own service kitchens.
“Our goal is to keep people in Saratoga Springs, have them stay at the local hotels and eat at the local restaurants,” Baker said.
Baker said business in 2011 looks “very solid, it’s looking very, very good for our building and for Saratoga Springs.”
The city and the City Centergot through the recession without much damage. “We weathered the storm better than most,” Baker said. Between 2005 and 2008 the annual number of events grew from 107 to 122. Total number of days the facility has been occupied has grown steadily to more than 200 days for each of the past five years.
The goal of the City Center, when it opened in 1984, was to keep the local economy running strong after the summer tourism months ended. Baker calls the facility the “consistent engine that keeps running” throughout the year and supporting the city’s restaurants and hotels, and its many retail shops.
The biggest hotel and motel occupancy periods in Saratoga Springs before the City Center were July and August, when the horses are running at Saratoga Race Course. In recent years, however, room occupancy has been higher in October and March than in August, Baker said.
Toohey said events at the City Center also introduce people to a safe, hospitable, and interesting city, and convention visitors often return with their families.
“They bring their family and friends at a different time of the year,” Toohey said. “That bounce-back of people has been extraordinary.”
Baker’s philosophy is to work hard and give those coming to the City Center more than they expect. “We are hosts, this is a hospitality business,” Baker said. “We under-promise and we over-deliver.”
He said he and his 11-person staff never take a customer for granted because “there are other options.” He also has a guideline for himself and his other salespeople: “If you sell it, you serve it, and welcome people at the door.”
Judy LeCain, director of sales at the City Center, has worked with Baker for 25 years. “He is a very dedicated individual,” she said. “Nobody in the building works harder than he does.” He often works 10 and 12 hour days at the City Center.
More than 80 percent of the conventions at the City Center are return business, LeCain said. This means those coming back enjoyed their first experience. At many large convention centers, she said, different staff members do different tasks. Not in Saratoga Springs.
“In our case we do all three jobs.” She said this means she books a client, she does the detail work leading up to the event, and she is there to greet the client at the door. “I have developed a real relationship with my clients.”
Mayor Scott Johnson said, “The city has been fortunate to have Mark’s leadership both at the start and with the renovations.” Johnson is an ex-officio member of the City Center Authority board of directors. “It’s amazing that he hasn’t missed any deadlines or interrupted the operations of the City Center.”
“I can’t say enough about Mark’s expertise and commitment,” Johnson said.
The renovations, which bring advanced technology into the building with large, programmable flat screen video displays at the entrance of each meeting space, also came in about $500,000 under the $16 million budget.
Toohey said that money will be put right back into the building, including a new sound system for the main convention hall.
The total operating budget for the center, including staffing, operations and marketing, is just over $1 million per year.
Baker credited his partners in the city, including the Saratoga Convention Bureau and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, for doing excellent marketing.
“I like the people of Saratoga Springs,” Baker said. “I like their energy, the trust they have in me to move forward and develop the City Center and take a risk.”
Baker is the father of three grown sons and a 9-year-old daughter. He has two grandsons, ages 6 and 1. He has lived in Wilton and Greenfield over the years. Baker currently lives in Saratoga Springs in an older Victorian-style home that he has been busy renovating.
He doesn’t play golf or have any special hobbies. “I like doing stuff around the house,” he said. “I bike a little with my daughter, Emma, we like walking downtown.”
He is also involved with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Lake Avenue in Saratoga Springs. He is currently president of the congregation.
He loves Saratoga Springs and “the sense of place we have, the history we have.”
“The people here are very vested in the town, they are vocal, they are involved.”
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