The heart of Saratoga Springs’ economic life lies along a half-mile stretch of Broadway downtown, normally vibrant from midday into the earl -morning hours, but dormant for a couple of weeks now.
But for more than half the summer, the Spa City’s heart lies a mile to the east, at Saratoga Race Course, the center of the tourist economy, with the racing industry contributing more than $200 million annually to the regional economy. But that’s in a normal year — and this year seems unlikely to return to total normality.
It’s not something anyone is anxious to talk about, but the thoroughbred racing season could be at risk if the restrictions on gatherings put in place in response to the novel coronavirus continue into the summer. The track, which brings tens of thousands of strangers together for hours at a time, isn’t a place where “social distancing” seems even conceivable.
The flat track has more than one million paid admissions each summer, with many visitors coming from outside the Capital Region and collectively spending millions of dollars. Many of visitors come from New York City and its suburbs, where the pandemic has hit hard. The same can be said for one of the city’s other big draws, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
The economic impact of the racing meet is huge, estimated at nearly $250 million per year across the Capital Region. It fills hotels and restaurants — two of the sectors hard-hit by the virus response — as well as supporting an array of agricultural enterprises across the Capital Region.
“I think the challenge for us here is that COVID hit the travel and entertainment industries first and hardest,” said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. “You’re talking about hitting all the major attractions here ... SPAC, the museums, restaurants, bars and hotels.”
Asked about the direct impact if the race course doesn’t open this year, Shimkus said he didn’t want to discuss hypotheticals.
Saratoga County and Warren County — the location of another economy-sensitive seasonal tourist hot spot, Lake George — are both currently asking visitors from the New York City area to voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days out of fear they could spread the virus.
Essex County — home to Lake Placid and the the Adirondack High Peaks — is asking people from downstate to stay away entirely for now, even if they have second homes in the Adirondacks. None of those restrictions is mandatory, though, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he opposes travel restrictions.
Because of the coronavirus, the New York Racing Association has canceled racing at Aqueduct in Queens through at least April 5, but so far officials there say the Saratoga meet is still on.
Saratoga Springs Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan said on Thursday that in a worst-case scenario, which assumes the track doesn’t operate as normal this summer, the city could face a $16 million revenue shortfall by the end of the year.
“Honestly, my numbers are inclusive of the race track possibly not opening,” Madigan said. “I’m not hopeful, but I don’t know. It’s kind of like if the track doesn’t open, we’re in a situation like we have today, where nothing is open.”
The 2020 Saratoga schedule released by NYRA calls for 40 days of racing to start on Thursday, July 16, and run five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, to Labor Day, Sept. 7. Last year was the first year of a five-day racing schedule and a mid-July start. In general, businesses in Saratoga said they were pleased with how the meet went.
NYRA last week put out a statement saying racing in Saratoga is still on, for now.
“While we are monitoring the current conditions and consulting with the New York State Department of Health, we are planning for Saratoga to open as scheduled and run in its entirety across the 40-day meet,” said NYRA Director of Communications Pat McKenna. “We are working in earnest each and every day to prepare for the 2020 Saratoga season.”
The track’s economic impact is actually measurable.
An economic study completed in 2015 by the Saratoga County Industrial Development Agency estimated the total economic impact of the track at $237 million annually, which included spending ranging from steak-and-bubbly sales in downtown Saratoga restaurants to increased hotel room bookings as far away as Colonie and Lake George. The track is directly or indirectly responsible for 2,600 jobs, the study found. The study focused on thoroughbred racing and didn’t include the impact of the nearby Saratoga Casino Hotel, with its harness racing track.
The entire racing meet has been canceled before, but not in 75 years. Racing seasons were canceled between 1943 and 1945 due to World War II travel restrictions.
At SPAC, leadership acknowledges there is plenty of uncertainty about how the year will play out for venues that attract people to Saratoga by the thousands. At the moment, one Live Nation show has been canceled, but otherwise a full season of dance, Philadelphia Orchestra and Live Nation concerts is planned.
“Unfortunately, there is not really much we can say at this moment, given that there are still months between now and the first scheduled performances — and so much can happen between now and then,” SPAC President and CEO Elizabeth A. Sobol said in a statement on Friday. “Assuming the ban is lifted in time, and people are indicating through the ticket-buying their willingness to be in large groups again, our hope and intention is to proceed with our full SPAC summer lineup.”
SPAC wants to serve the community, Sobol said.
“Needless to say, we are not only cognizant of the important need to bring great performances back to Saratoga following the ravages of COVID-19, but we are also aware of the devastating economic impact to the city and region if SPAC is not operating at full capacity,” she said.
The chamber of commerce, meanwhile, is focusing on keeping existing businesses from failing during the state-mandated closures.
A “takeout week” restaurant promotion now has more than 130 participating eateries in all parts of the county. “It’s giving them some income and keeping some people employed,” Shimkus said.
A gift card promotion started last week is encouraging people to buy gift cards from businesses that are currently closed — retailers, florists, hair salons — in an effort to give their operators some revenue during the closures. The gift cards can be redeemed later when the businesses have reopened.
Madigan noted that Saratoga isn’t an economic island, and also encouraged people to support businesses that will be struggling for weeks.
“What’s impacting Saratoga Springs will impact every other community,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @ gazettesteve on Twitter.