Like many population centers in upstate New York, downtown Plattsburgh has more than a few dust-ridden, vacant storefronts. On Brinkerhoff Street, though, workers are currently restoring the Strand Theatre, a massive, vaudeville-era building that’s fallen into disrepair. When it’s completed, in 2009, the restored cultural center will provide a much-needed boost to local merchants, not to mention the greater North Country economy. Make that greater North Country creative economy.
A local organization has already raised $1.4 million to bring Plattsburgh’s 83-year-old Strand back to its former majesty. That’s big news for a region that has been struggling to regain its footing since well before the Plattsburgh Air Force base closed in 1995.
But the Strand still isn’t much to look at. Located just a block from the heart of Plattsburgh’s sleepy downtown, the building’s windows are boarded up, and its interior is littered with old seat cushions and construction debris. The place booms not with orchestra rehearsal but a grating symphony of buzz saws.
That’s not how Sylvia Stack remembers it. The 73-year-old is the president and former executive director of the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts, the area’s principal arts nonprofit. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, she meets a reporter at NCCCA’s high-ceilinged headquarters across the street from the Strand. “One of the memories I have is going to see Gone with the Wind,” Stack recalls. “I must have been 5 years old.”
The 1000-seat theater was once an “upper-class” destination, according to this former New York City fashion designer. But as Stack points out, a restored Strand won’t just benefit well-heeled patrons; it should also raise the standard of living for area residents. “Companies, when they want to relocate, look to the quality of life that a community will provide,” she explains. “Our hospital has had a lot of trouble getting doctors because we don’t have enough culture outlets.”
Plattsburgh administrators agree. Four years ago, its Community Development Office commissioned a study on the city’s downtown economy. A survey section revealed that only one in 20 residents came downtown for entertainment, whereas two in five came for shopping and restaurants. Hoping to lure locals, college students from nearby SUNY Plattsburgh, “Canadian leisure travelers,” “ferry users” and “day-trippers,” developers deemed the Strand a focal point of what will eventually become a downtown “art walk.” That is, a permanent arts district that will include galleries and public sculptures.
There’s another bicoastal parallel: The Strand project mirrors a restoration that started in the 1980s at Burlington’s Flynn Theatre. Now called the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, the Art Deco venue is a nationally recognized landmark that draws big-name talent from around the world. In the last month, for example, singer-songwriter Ben Harper and the National Folkloric Ballet of México appeared on the MainStage.
The Flynn was constructed in 1930 — just six years after its New York neighbor — to serve as a movie theater and bowling alley. According to Flynn Center Facility Director Jack Galt, both the Flynn and Strand suffered from a general assault on stately movie houses that intensified in the 1960s. Fortunately, the former was acquired in 1981 by a nonprofit coalition led by Lyric Theatre, a local company that still puts on musicals twice a year there. By contrast, Plattsburgh’s Strand continued its long, steady decline.
“It’s impossible to imagine Burlington without the Flynn,” says Galt, a former builder with a penchant for the elegant design style of the 1930s. “When you see the exquisite and thoughtful way it was decorated, it makes you so happy it didn’t fall to the wrecker’s ball,” he gushes. Galt suggest the Flynn serves as a “magnet” for other artistic ventures in the community. Of the Strand’s restoration project, he notes simply, “It’s a good thing.”
Not surprisingly, when Plattsburgh’s NCCCA acquired the Strand back in 2004, Sylvia Stack solicited advice from Flynn Center Executive Director Andrea Rogers. Was she stealing secrets? Hardly. Rather than compete with the Flynn, Stack hopes a restored Strand will host North Country-based drama and dance groups. In addition, she suggests the theater could enhance the cultural appeal of a region that includes hot spots such as Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and, yes, Burlington. “Then people can come and look at this whole area as a tourist destination,” Stack suggests with a theatrical wave of her arm.
Plattsburgh resident Tom Lavin, 53, offers a unique perspective on the Strand-Flynn dichotomy. The former Burlingtonian performed with Lyric Theatre in the late ’70s and early ’80s. After relocating across the lake, he founded the Clinton County-based Adirondack Regional Theatre in 1998. He’s now president of ART and the artistic director of a multi-age theater troupe at a nearby public high school.
“Unfortunately, Plattsburgh has a lot of talented people but we don’t have the same kind of scene that Burlington has,” Lavin admits, speaking by phone before a planning meeting for an upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz. “Burlington basically has theater year-round. But on the New York side of the lake,” he laments, “there’s quite a bit of time where theater could [happen] but doesn’t.”
The Strand, Lavin says, isn’t Plattsburgh’s only capital-intensive building project in recent years; it’s just the most sensible one. He recalls when big-box stores such as Wal-Mart began to crowd the city’s outskirts about 15 years ago — development, he maintains, that further challenged downtown. For Lavin, the Strand restoration project fits into a more intelligent growth pattern. “I think the renaissance can happen,” he says. “Something like the Strand can definitely help that out.”
Can a restored theater really spark a downtown comeback in Plattsburgh? Perhaps, but Rosemarie Schoonmaker, director of the Community Development Office, doesn’t think Lavin’s urban vision takes into account all the city’s previous efforts. “I wouldn’t say it’s the beginning of the renaissance,” she counters. “I’d say it was the continuation of a renaissance. This is all part of the plan to enhance the downtown.”
Schoonmaker, who has worked for the city since 1990, should know. The Strand restoration project, she explains, is just the latest initiative in a long-term plan to make Plattsburgh a more livable place. That includes efforts in the early ’90s to refurbish downtown building façades and upper-story residential spaces, construction of a waterfront bike path in the late ’90s and, this spring, erection of a new office building.
“It’s an overall strategy,” Schoonmaker says with an exasperated sigh. “We have been concentrating our efforts in the downtown over those years, but it’s been small steps.” With the excitement about the Strand and the new office building, she adds, “All of a sudden it’s in peoples’ minds. But I don’t think they realize how long we’ve been struggling and working.”
According to Schoonmaker, the biggest challenge at this point is keeping local residents excited — after all, the Strand still has more fundraising goals to meet. Specifically, $1.5 million. “Rejuvenation takes a long time, so when people don’t see things happening, they become discouraged,” she observes. “When you go into the Strand, you can see the change already.”
No one is more psyched about the Strand restoration than Heath Powers, a 26-year-old actor and drama instructor at the North Country Cultural Center. On the morning after Sylvia Stack holds court at NCCCA headquarters, he leads a reporter across the street toward the dilapidated former vaudeville palace. As he pauses under the Strand marquee, Powers’ pale blue eyes gleam with excitement. “I care a lot about this area,” he says. “I remember it from before the [Plattsburgh Air Force] base left, and I know it could be better.”
Powers, who acts in Tom Lavin’s Adirondack Regional Theatre, is an unusual case: Most of Plattsburgh’s twentysomething thespians migrate toward brighter lights and bigger cities. “The feeling right now is that, for any artist, they’re forced to leave the area . . . because there’s nothing here they can do,” he laments. “They can’t make money, they can’t perform, they can’t do what they love here — yet.” Grinning, Powers adds, “When the Strand opens, it’s going to give a lot of people the opportunity to stay.”
Like Stack, Powers has fond memories of the Strand, albeit from a different era. In the early ’80s, he saw E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial here. As he tells it, the restoration project has brought his neighbors’ memories out of the woodwork. “I’ve given maybe given 30 tours in the past year,” he recalls. “People just want to see it . . . There are older people who remember it when it was in its prime, and kids who went to college when it was a movie theater in the ’80s.”
Powers pauses and then adds, “I mean, you could’ve gone to the mall . . . but the Strand was just so much cooler.”