The appealing village of Sharon Springs, New York, about three hours from New York City, roughly between Cooperstown and Albany, has a strikingly unusual history. The town’s unique feature is a set of mineral springs that became a draw for New Yorkers in the second quarter of the 19th Century (http://sharonspringschamber.com/history/). Sharon Springs was supplanted as a spa for the socially prominent in mid-century by Saratoga Springs, the institutions of which had anti-Semitic policies. As a result, Sharon Springs became a destination for well-to-do Jews. This evolved in the twentieth century into a visitor population of recently immigrated Eastern European Jews, who were less financially well-set than their “Our Crowd” predecessors and who found in Sharon Springs echoes of home – the bath resorts of Central and Eastern Europe. When we first stayed in the town in the early 90’s it had a large summer population of Hasidic Jews, who stayed in rooming houses and the one gigantic dilapidated kosher hotel, the Adler (at which, it is said, Ed Koch was once a summer busboy). At that time a number of younger folks had purchased run down properties in town with the idea of restoration and adaptive reuse. It was an unusual and yeasty mix. We stayed in a very comfortable Victorian bed and breakfast that is still in operation by the same owners. We came to really enjoy Sharon Springs, and it became our regular place to stay on our annual visits to Cooperstown.
I am proud to report that I actually experienced the mineral baths at the Imperial Bathhouse in one of its final years. It had an old world sensibility, which my spouse pronounced as disgusting. It was staffed by strong Eastern European women who provided the spa massage services. One passed through a subway like turnstile in order to enter and pay. The towels were transparent and the shower curtains around the tubs were covered with mold. One exited the tubs reeking of sulfur. I loved it. Just after that experience the place closed, as did the decaying Adler Hotel (which we also visited – kind of like out of The Shining).
Many of the initial restoration projects were not financially successful – particularly the reuse of the huge Roseboro Hotel (née, the Rosenberg Hotel) as a restaurant and catering hall, which is now partially fixed up (containing an antiques store) and partially not. But other ventures have been much more fruitful. The biggest investment, and perhaps the most successful, has been the American Hotel purchased by Doug Plummer and Garth Roberts – which they beautifully restored. They provide personal, excellent service and run an accomplished, efficient dining room. Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner Brent Ridge brought significant attention to Sharon Springs with their Reality TV show “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” about their move from New York City, and their purchase of a goat farm in the area. This eventuated in a charming store in Sharon Springs called Beekman 1802 (https://beekman1802.com/), which sells products made on the farm (many goat milk-based), and related lifestyle housewares. Two additional thriving restaurants in the town, the Black Cat Café and the 204 Main Bar & Bistro both have more than survived several seasons. Other shops include a spa, galleries and antique stores.
The more recent migrants to Sharon Springs continue to explore how to expand economic activity there. There remain quite a few empty storefronts and empty lots along Main Street. Just before the recession of 2007, an investor group bought the bathhouse facility and the Adler Hotel, but over the succeeding years seem to have made little progress in reviving them. This past summer we did see some construction activity at the Imperial Baths. The area has a relatively short summer season that makes the economics of hospitality-based businesses particularly difficult. One would think that the Baseball Hall of Fame, a major attraction less than a half hour away, would be a traffic generator, but local business owners told us that Hall of Fame visitors are not attracted to the town, and that regular visitors actually avoid coming to Sharon Springs during Hall of Fame weekend – due to the crowds in Cooperstown. The bigger visit generator for Sharon Springs is the Glimmerglass Festival (formerly The Glimmerglass Opera) during July and August about twenty minutes away at the north end of the spectacularly beautiful Otsego Lake (Cooperstown is at the very south end of the lake). The Festival has a reputation as one of the half-dozen most important presenters of opera in the country and is a national draw.
But, frustratingly the hospitality resources in the region are of limited supply – as a result of an odd kind of negative feedback loop. Unlike, say, the Santa Fe Opera, the Festival is limited in the scope of who it can attract, because of the inability of the area to feed and house them in greater numbers. And the market for the hotel and restaurant business is limited by the short season.
Another challenge for Sharon Springs is its geographic situation. It is just off the historic scenic highway 20, down a steep hill into a valley. The town lies at the bottom of the valley with an even steeper hill out of which the mineral springs flow behind the shop fronts on one side of Main Street. On the other side of Main Street, is a somewhat less but still steep hillside, on which is built the town’s residential neighborhood. So the downtown has residents only on one side, and many of those homes have an uphill climb back after a walk downtown. This is a contrast from Gloversville, another attractive Mohawk Valley town about which I recently wrote, which is also substantially larger.
Over the years I’ve given a good deal of thought as to what might be done to draw more visitors to Sharon Springs, fill the empty storefronts, and perhaps even produce small-scale new development to fill in the empty lots that now exist between structures. Most of those gaps were the result of the abandonment and collapse of hotels and rooming houses in the middle of the twentieth century. The answer I’ve come up with is “I’m not sure.”
If the investors in the Imperial Baths actually complete a high quality restoration of that facility, it may well draw new visitors. But it is also likely that the revival of the baths could radically change the character of the town – depending on how it is executed. We were told that the current investor in the Baths is modeling the restoration on the successful Korean spas of Queens – the most visible of which is the popular Spa Castle (https://ny.spacastleusa.com/). It could be a wild economic success. I have a group of Queens friends who love to hang at Spa Castle. But they are a much younger and more diverse crowd than those I have observed to be the current patrons of the American Hotel and the other current offerings of Sharon Springs. The Spa Castle aesthetic is not Sharon Springs’ current quiet, rural and nostalgic charm.
Sharon Springs is too small to easily develop a critical mass of attractions that might sufficiently build on its current market and season length, as well as on town residents, to fill empty storefronts and lots with restaurants, galleries, shops selling handmade and unique merchandise that are compatible with existing businesses. But it seems to me creative efforts must be made towards that goal – especially in order for the character of the community to be maintained in a possible onslaught of tour buses and partiers drawn to a spa attraction.
The focus for business and property owners should be to fill in gaps. The small size and residential layout of the town will make relying only on locals unlikely to support Main Street retailers – especially since none of those retailers are now selling essentials like food and pharmacy items (there is a Stewart’s at the intersection of Highway 20 that serves some of that need). Occasional events, like performances and festivals, will also not create the kind of critical mass of activity that will make Main Street work with out-of-town visitors. Not many visitors to a performance or fair will become more frequent visitors to the shops and restaurants in Sharon Springs. As David Milder has written, few to no small town arts centers have been successful. It’s simply not possible to create a sufficient level of programming to make a difference. A dark performing arts center is a liability – not an asset. A higher level of sustained activity in storefronts, especially at night, will draw people to the town.
My recommendation is to make cheap and heavily subsidized space available on Main Street to artists and “makers” in order to increase the amount of sustained activity at street level and to activate empty spaces. Perhaps creating a Sharon Springs “brand” on the internet, similar to the one already created for the Beekman 1802 brand. Selling “Sharon Springs” merchandise both in the village, but more importantly out the “back door” of web-based sales could attract such high quality retailers and makers to start or move their businesses to the town. The Sharon Springs on-line retail “brand” could be about small town nostalgia, uniqueness, rural products, high quality and Americana. David Milder has also written about the importance of multiple sales channels for small downtown retailers (http://www.ndavidmilder.com/2011/11/downtown-multichannel-retailing). A vision for a future, vibrant Sharon Springs might be as of a center for sales of unique and handcrafted merchandise sold both on-site, but more importantly over the web associated with the Sharon Springs brand.
One small suggestion is to update the historical markers that were placed around Main Street twenty years ago. They are worn – and don’t send the kind of positive placemaking message that is so important. My general view is that poorly maintained street furniture is worse than no street furniture at all.
Sharon Springs is a lovely place to spend time. It has great potential – but unfortunately has been in the “great potential” stage for a couple of decades. The renovated baths might draw new visitors and extend the tourism season – but also may present challenges to preserving the village’s character. The town has seen a number of entrepreneurs already make serious, thoughtful capital investments. Little-by-little in recent years Main Street has seen an increase in activity. Certainly, Sharon Springs’ best days are ahead of it.