Summerville, S.C., is trying it. In Virginia, Staunton and Franklin convinced their downtown businesses to get on board with the idea last fall. Downtown Chico made it work in California with a street festival and farmers market.
Downtown Schenectady is joining each of the above American cities in extending its Thursday night business hours past regular weekday hours. Well, sort of. It will start with the Jay Street Marketplace.
The goal is to boost activity — browsing, shopping, dining or even just hanging out — in downtown streets for just one night a week. Weekends are for bars and restaurants. And weekdays, most shops downtown close their doors around 5 or 6 p.m. But a cadre of Schenectady natives remember what it was like to take a stroll downtown on Thursday nights, and that nostalgia is just what the Jay Street Business Association hopes will revive the once-a-week tradition.
“You could literally get anything and everything down here,” said Richard Mare, owner of Downtown Designs on Jay Street. “There were department stores and shoe stores and candy stores and a Mr. Peanut shop. It had that whole downtown small-town USA feel to it.”
Beginning this Thursday and lasting throughout the summer, businesses along the Jay Street Marketplace will extend their Thursday hours until 8 p.m.
When he was a boy, Mare’s mother and grandparents would take him out to State Street. They’d shop at the Carl Co. and then grab dinner. And it was always on Thursday nights — when stores stayed open until at least 9 p.m. for teenagers and families and 9-to-5 employees of General Electric down the road.
Let’s first state the obvious: downtown Schenectady is not what it used to be. There’s no more Carl Co. or Woolworth’s or Barney’s, though its ghost sign remains to this day on the tall brick building on State Street. There’s no more Wallace Armer hardware store or Olender Mattress Co. There are hardly as many diners and delis and music stores.
But that hasn’t stopped Jay Street business owners from reminiscing about the city’s heyday and attempting to usher in their own era of renewed activity. Schenectady is experiencing some downtown revival, after all. More residential options are popping up downtown. Foot traffic isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either.
Despite all odds, they hold out hope that “the way things were” can return as simply “the way things are.”
“Thursday night was the night downtown stayed open,” said Mare, who is spearheading the Thursday night revival. “It was sort of that unofficial kickoff to the weekend. Everything was here so it was a destination for people. It was a night out for women, who would get all dressed up and come out shopping and go out to dinner. It was a whole special thing.”
So what has kept people away?
“I think people still have that fear in the back of their minds,” said Mare. “For a long time, because there hasn’t been anything downtown, people were afraid to come down at night. But if they knew that restaurants and shops were going to be open and people would be out, I think they would have more peace of mind about coming downtown.”
Success in saratoga
It’s a formula that’s worked for Saratoga Springs, a city whose downtown has gained national attention for its array of shops, restaurants and activities. But it wasn’t always that way.
“In the late ’60s and ’70s, half the buildings were storefronts that were just papered over,” said Susan Farnsworth, director of promotion and marketing at the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association. “Believe it or not, people used to go to downtown Schenectady to get stuff, because there was so much there during that time. It took the vision of a lot of key people to make it what it is now.”
What turned things around, she said, was when business owners realized that working together was in their best interest. For a long time, they viewed cooperating with a neighboring business as aiding and abetting their competitors. And then, a few shops got together and tried their hand at cross-marketing. And it worked.
In 1986, businesses banded together to form the DBA and agreed to stay open late one night in November for what has since become an anticipated annual tradition: the Saratoga Victorian Streetwalk.
It was also around this time that businesses launched a blue ribbon campaign, where any business that planned to stay open late would display a blue ribbon in their window. Next to it would be a poster featuring all the other downtown businesses that had agreed to stay open, as well.
“It’s difficult getting everyone to agree on something,” said DBA President Jeff Clark. “Some business owners will tell me, 'Oh my gosh, there’s no way that I wouldn’t be open late,’ while back then they weren’t sure they would get any people to come in. One of the things that we’re blessed with is people view Saratoga as a destination. They come here to have a good time, to shop, to eat, to play. So our retail benefits.”
Saratoga Springs has the added benefit of being a tourist destination, particularly during the summer when horse racing brings thousands of people onto city streets. Schenectady streets are not so lucky, though some business owners will cite Proctors shows as contributing to their foot traffic.
The outsiders who come to town for a Proctors show need more than just restaurants to patronize, though, said City Historian Don Rittner. Downtown Schenectady has a lot of restaurants. What it needs is more retail, more entertainment venues and more people living downtown.
“That’s the formula,” he said. “The formula is you gotta have the people because then the people demand the services. You don’t put services first. Right now, people who live in Schenectady get in their car and drive to Rotterdam or Colonie or Crossgates to do their shopping. You need a population that demands they have a downtown that allows them to walk down the street and buy a carton of milk or a pair of shoes. Nobody wants to go to the mall to buy just a couple of items.”
Capital Region downtowns had a welcome problem in the ’60s and ’70s. So many people filled the sidewalks along downtown Schenectady, Albany and Troy that residents were forced to walk in the streets, recalled Rittner.
That’s because from Thursday to Saturday, all the stores would remain open until 9 p.m. People could head downtown after school or after work and find ways to spend their time until late into the night. You’d catch a matinee, perhaps, and then peruse one of a half dozen department stores downtown, each with its own niche.
“Then you’d hit up your favorite restaurant, get a Cherry Coke and french fries with gravy and then go play pool downtown. Or maybe you’d just hang out at the restaurant with your buddies, or you’d go to the music store. Back then, you could go to one store to get your shoes and one store to get your shirts and one store to get your hats. There was a great variety.”
Rittner hasn’t felt that kind of atmosphere in a long time, he said. Despite all the time officials spend touting the growing development around downtown Schenectady, he said he’s not sure that new office buildings will draw people the same way retail stores did way back when.
“I think it’s a great idea that Jay Street is trying to do this,” he said. “But I think they have to do it for more than a couple of months. You really need people to have it in the back of their minds that 'Oh yeah, it’s Thursday night, I can go downtown to Ambition or get a used book at the Open Door or grab a cup of tea.’ They’re going to have to stay at it for at least a year.”
For now, Jay Street shop owners are remaining optimistic. After all, they have variety. Along the pedestrian mall are coffee shops and sandwich shops, a bookstore, gift shop, specialty food, health and wellness, antiques, tattoo and clothing stores. They’ll give extended Thursday hours a try during the summer months, and if things go well, they’ll consider keeping them indefinitely.
“We just want people to take the chance,” said Mare. “Come downtown and take the chance.”