SARATOGA SPRINGS N.Y. -- Whenever I journey to Saratoga these days, I get that Rip Van Winkle feeling.
Back in the early 1970s, in between jobs, schools and figuring out what I was going to be when I grew up, I spent a few months marooned -- at least it felt that way at the time -- in the little upstate New York hamlet of Schuylerville, originally known as Old Saratoga. That's where the famous Revolutionary War era battle took place (down the road in present-day Stillwater). Historical site markers dot the little village, pointing out where the colonial artillery was arrayed and where British soldiers and their Hessian allies stacked arms when they surrendered in 1777. The battlefield is a fascinating visit.
But where several paper mills once provided good paying, secure jobs for the local population and underpinned the area's economy, they shut their doors, one by one. Then came the first energy crisis, and the nasty recession of 1974-75. Lights out.
Ten or so miles away on Route 29 sat Saratoga Springs, another icon of seemingly faded glory. Where Diamond Jim Brady and the fortunate among the Gilded Age had once found their mojo at the famous racetrack and the luxury hotels of the time, the sense of better days having come and gone was palpable.
You had nightlife spots -- Cafe Lena and the bars on Caroline Street. In addition to the racetrack, there was the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or SPAC, which opened in 1966 as the summer homes of the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra.
It's not a stretch to say SPAC saved Saratoga, or at least kept the home fires burning during the bumpy ride from then to now.
Fast forward to today. Broadway, the Main Street of Saratoga, is bustling with new shops, buildings and energy. Downtown teems with stores in a cleaned up streetscape almost lifted from a municipal planning official's dream of what a downtown should look like. Congress Park, the home of the famed (and historic) Canfield Casino, got cleaned up and restored to what one might imagine was its former glamour. And the racetrack, fronted by the magnificent boulevard feeling of Union Avenue, was once again the place to be for anyone who wanted horses, wagering, style and general buzz.
A partnership between private sector investors and businesspeople, together with public officials, set the stage for the renaissance, according to Todd Shimkus, the executive director of the Saratoga Springs Chamber of Commerce.
While the public officials worked to improve the streetscapes and supply adequate parking, private businesses renovated historic properties and started businesses and restaurants, he said.
Visitors get a varied shopping and dining experience. Take coffee, for example. You can go to Starbucks or try Coffee Traders or other local spots, he said.
"There are all sorts of places to get a good cup of coffee," he said.
Construction of two new hotels on either side of the downtown core was critical, providing needed lodging downtown, he added.
"Where people stay is where they tend to eat and shop," he said. "We've figured out a way to attract people to either visit here for a couple of days or a week, or to live here."
Chris Morrow, the owner of the Northshire Bookstore, is one of a more recent generation of entrepreneurs lured to Saratoga. When the Borders Bookstore chain went out of business in 2011, some of the customers who came to his bookstore in Manchester, Vt. began urging him to open a second location there.
The "other" Northshire Bookstore opened last year in the heart of Saratoga and business is meeting expectations, Morrow said, desite all the bad news about independent bookstores.
The arts had a lot going on, and Skidmore College was another factor. And the local economy had found support in a large computer chip making facility owned by tech giants Global Foundries, a few miles away in Malta, N.Y., he said.
Farmers markets, an active philanthropic community and non-profit organizations rounded out the picture, he said.
If you go to Saratoga, you might as well head to the town center, ditch the car and stroll up and down Broadway. Malls cluster around the Northway exit north of town, but for a unique experience, drive in, park your car and burn some shoe leather.
National brand stores mix with unique and unusual independently owned stores. Cruise up and down Caroline and Phila streets, which intersect Broadway near the town center. Caroline Street is home to an endless string of bars, cafes and restaurants. The Tin and Lint is one of my old haunts.
Back on Broadway, you'll find an astonishing assortment of restaurants, tastes and cuisines -- from Esperanto's to Gaffney's Starting Gate, Desperate Annie's and the Saratoga City Tavern. In August they all seem busy.
Phila Street has a Greenwich Village feeling, with little boutiques including one charming one wafting incense out the door.
August is the busy season for Saratoga. The racetrack is open and there are regular concerts at the performing arts center. You reach the racetrack by skirting Congress Park and heading up Union Avenue, past the horse racing Hall of Fame. Travers Stakes weekend comes this year on Aug. 23, for the 145th running of the event. The race is almost as old as the track, which was built in 1863 and celebrated its 150th anniversary last year -- making it the continuously operating oldest sporting venue in the nation.
You don't have to be a fan of horse racing to enjoy the track. You can watch jockeys saddle up in the paddock and warm up their mounts. You can check out the fashion stylings of your fellow patrons. There's the sweeping majesty of the place itself, which combines 19th-century charm with 21st-century efficiency. And you never know what celebrity you might encounter. Everyone stands elbow to elbow.
If culture is your passion, then head down Broadway to the performing arts center. Along with the ballet and orchestra, it hosts many guest artists. You can opt for seats in the amphitheater, or sit on the grass hillside outside. Weather permitting, there's not a bad seat in the house. This August, popular acts like country music artists Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, classic rock acts REO Speedwagon and Chicago and later Steely Dan and Motley Crue, will take to the stage at SPAC.
Saratoga got its start -- and name -- from the healing springs of mineral water that bubbled up from the ground and helped launch the tourist industry, and the town has grown impressively since. You can still savor the past by seeing places like the stately Adelphi Hotel -- and then get a latte. Rip Van Winkle would not get to sleep long anymore.