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Bootstraps to BoomTown
Schuylerville gets a facelift on several fronts, bringing hope to the once-wayside village

By Ashley Hahn

In 1990, a prominent local author and urban-design commentator held up Schuylerville—the quiet little village just east of Saratoga Springs—as the very model of the upstate town. It was not meant as a compliment. Writing in an article for The New York Times Magazine, Jim Kunstler called attention to the village, describing it as an economic case study of a struggling upper-Hudson locale. He pointed to its downtrodden appearance and the shiftless kids from broken families, kids who didn’t eat enough breakfast because the boom of the Reagan years left places like Schuylerville untouched. “Here in Schuylerville,” he writes, “it wasn’t morning in America at all. It was more like 4 PM on the first day of winter.”

This little village—where, the residents are proud to point out, General Burgoyne’s surrender turned the tide of the American Revolution—has been through a lot. Other smaller-scale revolutions have touched down here in the intervening years: Schuylerville felt the boom of trade and industrialization. First there was traffic on the river and the old Champlain Canal where mules used to pull goods like lumber southward, and then there were the bustling mills of the industrial age. Schuylerville had six or seven mills during the industrial revolution, at a time when “Saratoga Springs was just a sleepy little backwater spa,” muses David Roberts, project manager for Turning Point development.

But those boom times have long since past; fire has destroyed even physical reminders of the old grandeur. And at the time of Kunstler’s article, the future was not bright. He did, however, suggest that change would arrive when the village concentrated on what it had going for it.

Now the village is changing at the hands of people like Roberts; local entrepreneurs are buying and fixing properties in the business district.

Schuylerville sits at the crossroads of routes 4, 32 and 29. It’s 10 miles from Saratoga Springs, and 35 miles from Albany. What most people know of the town is that it’s between them and Saratoga and Greenwich or Vermont, depending on which way they’re going. About 8,000 to 10,000 cars a day are estimated to pass through the “Z,” a short stretch through town that passes the schools on Spring Street, hangs a right at the old high school, passes three long blocks of residential and commercial properties, and turns left at the traffic light to take travelers over the water and straight out of town. But instead of hanging that last left, say you went straight, as a mere 2,500 cars do daily. Then you would be in a small business district that is trying very hard to put a fresh face on the village.

In late 19th- and early 20th-century storefronts sit established businesses, including Byron’s Market, a used-book shop, and a violin and mandolin maker’s storefront. The only chain stores in sight are the Stewart’s and Cumberland Farms that serve the steady traffic of Route 29. There are also relative newcomers up and down Broad Street: a stained glass studio, florist, two diner-style restaurants, arts space, high-end beauty and gift shop, and a 21st-century general store.

Local leadership: Schuylerville School District Superintendent Leon Reed. Photo by: Ashley Hahn

It’s true that businesses have come and gone, and prior revitalization efforts have fizzled out. But new businesses are faring better than previous efforts on Broad Street, and they could attract more businesses. The school district and the rural-yet-accessible setting are attractive for new residents. Big names in local real estate like Bonacio and Roohan have also begun to appear; they are working on a repurposing of the old high-school building on the corner of Spring and Broad streets. Suddenly people are starting to pay attention to the little village that looked so broken 15 years ago.

‘We basically are bursting at the seams,” says Mayor John Sherman, particularly after the construction of Morgan’s Run, a new housing development. “People are thinking this’ll become a boom town.”

One contributing factor is that people are being priced out of areas like Saratoga Springs in both the housing and commercial markets, which makes places like Schuylerville attractive. Real-estate agent Corinne Ward moved her family and business to Schuylerville six years ago because Saratoga Springs proved to be too expensive. But she says the village’s appeal goes beyond cost; it’s the quality of life that’s enticing. The setting is rural—with an apple orchard on the edge of town, a canal and the Hudson running along its backdoor, and views of Vermont from the hills—and the schools are good to boot. She says there’s a waiting list for residential properties because there just aren’t enough in town to meet the demands of prospective buyers.

When asked what in the village is drawing people, many mention the school system as a serious attraction. The district’s administrators suggest that the school district’s test scores, which are above the state average, and the campus’ well-groomed appearance both speak well of the district and have been the driving forces behind that attention.

“This year in particular, I think we’ve gotten a lot more phone calls in regard to people actually researching out schools and finding the best school in the area, then choosing the place to live,” says Michelle McDougall, assistant elementary school principal, something she hasn’t experienced previously. Parents are doing their homework.

Leon Reed, the superintendent, says the district has undergone major changes over the last 10 years physically as well as culturally, which helped turn some heads. “I think the school district actually started to make the move first,” Reed says. “It may be almost necessary to do that, you’ve kind of got to build it so they’ll come.” And every year there are 50 to 60 more students.

The district teaches about 1,800 children in all—a number two-thirds larger than Schuylerville’s entire population—who come from townships and municipalities within Northumberland, Fort Edward, Easton, Greenwich, the Town of Saratoga, Stillwater and Wilton. But to the elementary school’s principal Michael Mugits, “the size of the school isn’t what’s important. It’s the perception of the size.” He thinks that because they actively try to foster a sense of community and learn about the kids and their families and lives, the schools are more personal and comfortable environments. It appears to be working: Walking the halls, kids charge toward Mugits and McDougall and cover them in hugs.

The elementary school has its own climbing wall, its own intra-class postal system, a school store run by students, and a televised morning program run by students. The high school boasts amenities like double-wide lockers and private music practice rooms. And that’s not the half of it.

Reed has watched a school community develop where mutual respect is a real value and an entrepreneurial spirit is fostered. Kids, staff and teachers are encouraged to have a “bias for action” and to express themselves with the least amount of interference from the administration, provided that the high standards and sound teaching are not compromised. For example, when students were cutting class to protest the onset of war, Reed determined that this, in fact, was an educational opportunity. So if they got written parental permission, students could picket across the street so that access to the school and learning went on unimpeded.

The school’s spirit contributes to the town’s spirit. In Reed’s estimation, people in Schuylerville seem to want “a small community, an intimate, personal community, that’s well-built, and a good place for businesses and children and families to live.”

Ward confesses that when she was showing people homes as recently as two years ago, she used to drive around the downtown last, because she says “it wasn’t an asset to show someone coming into the village.” Now she says she’s proud to show off the changes as the president of the Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s definitely evolving,” agrees Marlene Bissell. “People are much more interested in choosing to come to Schuylerville, not just passing through,” and are inquiring about the area in the shop she runs with her husband, General Schuyler’s Pantry. Their store is an intentional patchwork of mini-businesses: Internet café meets ice cream parlor meets business center.

Local real estate agent and Chamber of Commerce president Corinne Ward. Photo by: Ashley Hahn

“When we designed General Schuyler’s Pantry, our thought was that there was no one piece of the store that would be able to support a business in Schuylerville, and that we needed to put something together that was able to tap into many different groups of customers,” she says.

Her husband Alan says he judges a place’s economic condition by how many empty storefronts there are, and he’s seen Schuylerville’s disappearing over the last few years.

Rachel Jagareski and her husband Dan own and operate Old Saratoga Books, a used bookstore on Broad Street in a lovely brick building. She believes “the residential part of town was always nice, but the ‘front porch’ was kind of decrepit”—that is the business district was boarded up and empty—and they spent several years hoping for some new neighbors. Her business has seen some of the lean times and it partly succeeds because of Internet business, but also because of Schuylerville’s location en route between two other popular bookstores: Lyrical Ballad in Saratoga Springs and Owl Pen Books in Cossayuna.

The vitality of the village will, in part, depend on how well the components of change go together and if people buy in. “It’s one hand holding another,” as Roberts puts it: The schools help attract new residents; new businesses may attract new consumers. He says Turning Point is hoping to contribute not just by repurposing central buildings, but by attracting “community-building tenancies,” businesses and people who want to be actively engaged in village life. The other part is getting all of those cars to stop in downtown. While locals fix up homes and shops, the street itself might get a facelift by the Department of Transportation, complete with period light fixtures and nicer sidewalks.

Newcomers Louis Hotchkiss and Junko Kobori bought 76 Broad St. last year and moved their business Gassho Body & Mind into one of two parallel storefronts on the ground floor. On one side they manufacture and package Blossoms, their own line of natural beauty products, which is carried by retailers like Whole Foods and Anthropologie. They also sell Blossoms from the other storefront in their shop, “dwell.” It’s a bright shop with tangerine walls, a purple counter and interesting merchandise, which includes handcrafted handbags and textiles, art books and imported gift items.

The store feels like something dropped from the East Village in a cultural tornado, and Hotchkiss is fond of reminding people, “this is the village.” Not the one you might have been thinking of, but it’s one they’re fond of. When they moved to town, Hotchkiss and Kobori made a concerted effort to involve themselves in village affairs and some of the long-range planning meetings. “We firmly believe that Schuylerville is about to pop,” he says.

There is a lot of talk around town about new projects that could help accelerate the modest, paced growth the town is currently experiencing. A lot of factors are at work at once, which could make this small village come into its own again. “We all have to just learn to play to our strengths,” Roberts says, and many are trying to do just that. In part because of the historic sites associated with the Battle of Saratoga, and the Hudson riverfront, the region has an opportunity to accentuate its special place, both historically and geographically speaking.

Extensive planning is underway for Old Saratoga on the Hudson, part of an initiative that would combine a series of interconnected parks, an environmental education center, and historic and geologic sites of significance on both sides of the river, all linked by pedestrian and bike trails. There is also talk of reviving small-craft boat traffic on the Old Champlain Canal, both of which could bring tourists into and through Schuylerville.

If all goes as planned, the DOT project won’t kill downtown traffic, the grant money will come through, Empire Zone designation will come through, visitors will have places to park, float, ride and eat lunch, businesses will have space to grow, and community will be fostered.

These projects are being advanced by locals who are donating their time and resources, as Marlene Bissell says, “to something for the greater good because they see the value in it. It’s exciting to be a part of something that feels successful and feels positive and feels like it’s growing.” This lets people have a say in what direction the community goes in, a rare option. “Most of the time a community already has its persona,” Bissell says, but “here the residents and the businesses are actually creating the community and helping to shape it.”

“I do think that some good things are going on in town,” Kunstler says now, pointing to restoration work done on important buildings like the high school and new businesses setting up shop. Though sustainability, he notes, should be a priority.

And, though there’s no telling what will become of all of this energy, Jagareski says,“I think we’re actually on the way up this time.”

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