SARATOGA COUNTY — Nearly 7 million people visited arts and culture destinations throughout Saratoga County last year, including the Saratoga Spa State Park and Saratoga Race Course.
Those visits resulted in a more-than-$80 million impact on the county's economy, according to the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, which hosted a luncheon Wednesday to unveil its new Saratoga County Cultural Index.
President Marty Vanags said the index, which will measures the economic impact of arts and culture destinations on the county's economy annually, is vital.
The Prosperity Partnership is gathering data for the index itself, Vanags said. In addition to number of visitors and total economic impact, the index will track jobs and the number of arts/culture institutions.
"It helps us make more informed decisions about where and how to invest," he said. "Without it, we're just guessing."
The county boasted 31 arts/culture institutions, including museums, performing arts venues, parks and historic sites, and equestrian-related venues, that collectively employed more than 1,600 people last year.
Maureen Sager, project director for the Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy, said Capital Region-based arts and cultural venues drive the local economy through workforce and community development and entrepreneur program initiatives.
"The creative economy is the fourth-largest employment sector in the Capital Region," she said, citing museums, artisanal restaurants and media, among others.
As part of the event, the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership hosted a panel discussion about how to make the region more visible on the national stage.
Teddy Foster, campaign director for Universal Preservation Hall, the former Washington Street church that is being converted into a 700-seat theater, said that venue is expected to have a large economic impact.
"I've lived here for 35 years, and we lacked a year-round downtown cultural center, so that's one of the reasons I was attracted to this project," she said. "It will be a wonderful enhancement to the downtown and help the economy during the shoulder seasons."
Saratoga Performing Arts Center President Elizabeth Sobol said Saratoga Springs needs to be conveyed as the city of creation and creativity.
"We're a rich community of artists," she said. "We need to be committed to supporting local artists, and that's an aspect we need to be conscious of, moving forward."
Sobol said the city has a few obstacles in its way.
"One of the biggest challenges is space availability," she said, citing the fact that there is no rehearsal space at SPAC. "Another challenge is the lack of affordable artist housing."
From a marketing standpoint, Foster said she would like to see the area promoted from a regional perspective.
"I believe in regionality, and I think we could do better if we act as a region," she said. "It would allow us to go to bigger companies and ask for bigger things."
Like Foster, Sager said the Berkshires in Massachusetts has marketed itself as a region, and that the Capital Region could do the same.
"We have amazing cities, so we could use a corridor approach," she said. "We want to contextualize ourselves in terms of large culturally driven cities, and we will not rest until we're able to do that."
Cecilia Lockwood, owner of Frittelli-Lockwood textile studio on Grand Street, was representing the Beekman Arts District, a three-block section of small art-related businesses along Grand, Congress and West Circular streets in Saratoga Springs.
"Once the artists started moving in, restaurants and other businesses did too," she said of Beekman Arts District. "It's a great way for artists to have a presence."
Lockwood said one of the biggest challenges facing the Beekman Arts District is the fact that it's several blocks from Broadway.
"As we do more community-driven events, we're becoming more visible," she said. "We're a small part of the arts and culture, and I wanted to find out if we can generate more exposure."
Vanags said he hopes attendees of Wednesday's event recognize that arts and culture are a big industry.
"They have a huge impact on economic development," he said. "We need to get people together more often to talk about this and how we can attract more talent moving forward."
The next Saratoga Prosperity Partnership luncheon will be on Sept. 20 and will focus on agriculture and exports.