SARATOGA SPRINGS – Elizabeth Sobol strolled the grounds of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the springtime thaw of 2017, a few months after taking the reigns as SPAC’s president and CEO. Green tarps were slung around the concession area and the infrastructure displayed signs of more than a half-century of use.
“Crumbling limestone, rusting metal, broken windows,” she says. “I remember thinking: this is one of the greatest venues in North America. How is it that it’s not being maintained the way it should?” This past summer, a full half of the restrooms located in the brick structure that frames the concession area high atop the lawn were out of order. “The plumbing is so old they could no longer be fixed, because the underlying plumbing is the issue. It was not fitting a venue of SPAC’s stature.”
This week, SPAC announced a $9.5 million renovation project that will see a complete replacement and upgrade of the existing concessions and restroom facilities. Two new concessions buildings will replace the existing tent structures, which have lacked proper security, infrastructure and storage space. In the center of the main plaza a new open-air covered pavilion will establish a more park-like aesthetic and restore the original sight lines from the Route 50 bridge to the Victoria Pool. The existing brick semi-circle structure will come down and the new center, set a little further back, to restore those sightlines of the pre-SPAC days.
“It will be a completely re-imagined area. It’s gone beyond being just a concession area. All the old buildings are coming down and being replaced with all new buildings,” Sobol says. “There will be one larger building with brand new bathrooms – and many more bathrooms than are there now. There will be a new concession area, and up on the second floor a 4,000 square foot indoor-outdoor gathering space that will be multi-use: for education, community gathering, VIP experience. And it will be year-round - which is game-changing for us.”
SPAC has expanded its year-round programs as well as its education programming in recent years – from serving 5,000 kids to nearly 10 times that number. The year-round use availability will enable continued grow in both, the educational programming and community outreach in which SPAC has been involved. Additionally, the covered pavilion in the center of the new project area will be used to showcase pre-concert talks – which are currently held in an 80-capacity room on campus, enabling hundreds to attend the events.
The project - anticipated to be completed by May 1, 2020 - is supported by $8 million in private funding from Live Nation and Saratoga Performing Arts Center. New York State is providing up to $1.5 million in grants from Empire State Development and State Parks, awarded through the governor's Regional Economic Development Council initiative.
The Live Nation component marks the first significant contribution by the venue’s summertime pop music concert promoter. Through the late 1990’s, SPAC had mostly done its own bookings of summer pop concerts. In 2000, SPAC signed a booking deal for those summer pop shows with concert promoter SFX Entertainment, which was sold to Clear Channel Communications and eventually spun into Live Nation.
“This is a big deal that they’ve come to the table to help us,” Sobol says. “Live Nation brought expertise – they have architects on staff, a ton of knowledge about getting buildings done in the right way for the right party and using every dollar wisely.” Specific operations of the facility will remain status quo. A long-running existing contract between SPAC and Live Nation regarding the booking of summer pop concerts is nearing the end of its run and is anticipated to be renewed.
“It’s a 53-year-old facility with hundreds of thousands visiting every year. You have to be renovating and upgrading. For me the concessions area was really something that had to get done because when you have bathrooms functioning at 50% and you have shows that can range from 5,000 to 25,000 you’ve got a real problem,” Sobol says.
“I’m a big believer in maintaining the sanctity of the park, the park-like feel of things, restoring the sightlines. I want people to really feel the magic of being in the park. This jewel that we have. I talk about SPAC as being the perfect confluence of man-made beauty and natural beauty. In my mind there’s no other cultural organization anywhere I can think of that melds those two things.”
Now in her third year as president and CEO, Sobol explains she realized early on the role SPAC plays both in the local community and beyond. “The thing that totally bowled me over is how everyone seems to have a SPAC story; Whether it’s the rock and roll shows they first went to and ended up coming back over and over again, or that they met their spouse at a show, or that their toddler took their first steps on the lawn. It is unbelievably woven into Saratoga’s psyche. The memories are woven into the roots of the trees that are part of this park.”
The $9.5 million funding for the project as well as the coordination includes a variety of collaborators including well-known locals Sonny Bonacio – who heads Bonacio Construction, and Mike Ingersoll, of the LA Group. Earlier this year, State Parks completed a $1.75 million project to renew the SPAC amphitheater's aging balcony ramps and lighting with an elegant and safe entryway. The amphitheater facade was upgraded in 2012.