Due to the confidential nature of the negotiations, it is unclear whether UPH is looking to sell the building completely or is seeking a management entity to do its programming. This story is the result of several on and off-the-record conversations with well-placed local arts individuals, including several who are directly involved with the discussions between the two relevant parties and actual emails that confirm that such discussions have taken place. It is also known that Proctors officials have recently toured UPH as part of this possible transaction.
A potential deal of this magnitude may take a long time to effectuate under any circumstance and is complicated by the fact that UPH is continuing to provide a worship space for the Universal Baptist Church, which the UPH Board has made a commitment to preserving in perpetuity.
While the negotiations for this undeveloped transaction proceed slowly, one local arts organization felt they had been left in limbo.
Meg Kelly, executive director of Saratoga Children’s Theatre (SCT), has been seeking a permanent home for its summer camp and year-round productions that have been a part of the community since 2008. Ms. Kelly began discussions about renting UPH last March, and Ms. Teddy Foster, UPH Board President, made a presentation to the SCT Board of Directors. Ms. Kelly was optimistic about the possibilities and it appeared both parties were enthusiastic until one day in May, when Ms. Foster informed Ms. Kelly that discussions had to be suspended “due to an impending sale” in which Proctors was specifically identified, according to Ms. Kelly. “Frankly, I was very upset,” Ms. Kelly said. “Everything was going smoothly, and now I had to inform my board that we had no home for SCT this summer.” (Disclosure note: I am an advisory board member at SCT).
SCT currently has relationships with St. Peter’s School, Saratoga Spa Catholic High School and Skidmore College for the summer and the foreseeable future, but Ms. Kelly said: “We’re growing and the UPH space is obviously much better for our needs.
Ms. Foster declined to comment on the record about any negotiations. She did, however, say, “I was very sorry that it didn’t work out. We would have loved to welcome Saratoga Children’s Theatre, but we concluded that [UPH] could not accommodate their scheduling needs without impacting existing partners.”
Ms. Kelly countered, “Teddy had said that there were some potential conflicts with scheduling, like with some antique shows they had programmed, but we were more than willing to work around them. There weren’t very many conflicts
“And I wouldn’t presume to understand how they operate,” Ms. Kelly continued, referring to the UPH Board, “but wouldn’t having a tenant like us make it more attractive to a potential buyer? My only thought, fear actually, was that Proctors was going to come in with their own children’s programs.”
Ms. Kelly then contacted Mr. Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors, to inform him of SCT’s interest in UPH if Proctors took over. In a series of emails between Mr. Morris and Ms. Kelly, Mr. Morris was cordial and optimistically wrote “…I see a long-term relationship emerging…” but indicated, “…we are just talking, that’s about it…” and on May 22, “No [decision has been made] and not for some time.”
Reached in New York City by phone, Mr. Morris declined further comment.
So while the negotiations proceed slowly and/or languish, another possibility has arisen which may give this story a happy ending.
“This whole series of events made me think, why don’t we look into buying the building,” said Ms. Kelly. “We still need a permanent home, and we have a local commitment to the arts. If the [UPH] are offering a favorable deal to Proctors, and Proctors doesn’t want it, we’d love to talk to them about something similar.”
Should the deal with Proctors eventually be consummated however, it would represent a masterstroke with implications that could only be described as revolutionary. Proctors Theatre has recently completed its own renovations, including an infrastructure expansion of the back of its house that now allows it to welcome Broadway touring and other world-class productions. Additionally, Proctors has been cited as a lead spur that has resulted in the revitalization of Schenectady’s entire downtown area. With 2,646 seats on its main stage alone, it would in theory bring exponentially greater programming clout to the marketplace than UPH, which has a capacity that will only be about one-third of that even when completely built-out.
Since their renovations began in 2003, UPH has struggled with massive costs of renovation and also finding an identity. It has yet to develop a consistent programming line-up, remaining idle on the vast majority of dates. While its website’s (www.universalpreservationhall.org) mission statement states the goal to “Sustain a unique venue for performing arts and for cultural, educational, and community events” prominently, many board members have advocated promoting the hall as a venue for weddings, presumably because this is more lucrative and profitable. Indeed, the website’s homepage displays the virtues of UPH as a wedding venue above its programming offerings. As of press time, when you bookmark their site, you get the following keyword text: “Venue for wedding Saratoga Springs, Saratoga Springs wedding reception facility, reception location Saratoga Springs,” with nary a mention of the arts.