Glens Falls becoming Hometown U.S.A. again
Warren County city on a nice upswing
GLENS FALLS EDITOR’S NOTE: Each year, The Gazette Life & Arts staff profiles a destination within a short drive of the Capital Region. Today’s section focuses on Glens Falls, which on Thursday will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a city. We take a look at the revitalized downtown, the arts scene, the Civic Center, some quirky spots in the city and the real estate market (story in the Real Estate section). Inside on Page G7 is a restaurant review of one of the new downtown eateries, Bistro Tallulah. On Monday, the weekly history page will be devoted to Glens Falls, including its centennial events this week.
Rick Davidson, owner of and brewer for Davidson Brothers restaurant here, reminisced last month about his first days in business back in late 1996, when he was either visionary or fool for investing in a 150-year-old building in a downtown where his brew pub would be among only a handful of attractions.
“When you sat at the second floor bar, every building you saw was empty,” he said in an interview, “but we felt something was going to happen down here.”
While he shied away from being called a visionary, this small city’s downtown revitalization has grown up around the business he and his brothers founded on a shoestring — with neither experience brewing beer nor running a restaurant — just over 11 years ago. The way Davidson describes it, the early adopters of a vision for downtown had to be amateurs. It had gotten to that point. Savvy businessmen wouldn’t touch the place.
“If we didn’t do it,” he said, “intelligent, smart investors wouldn’t do it. It had to be guys like us with a half-baked idea to come along and prove it could be done.”
Becoming a destination
It took nearly a decade. But in the past three years, Davidson said, the downtown rebirth has picked up steam. In place of those vacant buildings he once saw are shops, cafes, upscale restaurants, a dinner-and-movie theater and the 300-seat Charles R. Wood Theater. More and more, Glens Falls, about 20 miles north of Saratoga Springs, is being viewed as a vibrant urban space.
Champions of this city, which celebrates its centennial this week, say it’s on its way to becoming a destination — perhaps the next Saratoga.
Mayor Le Roy B. Akins Jr. refuses to take credit for all of it. He points out that he’s only been in office for the past couple of years, and so much of this has been in the works for at least a decade. And Akins said the mix of public and private investment helped spur things along. A streetscape project along the city’s main street — Glen Street — and the ancillary Warren Street, where state and local governments collectively spent millions, helped improve downtown’s aesthetic vibe. And a roundabout, while controversial, tamed a confusing five-way intersection and made it much more pedestrian friendly, Akins said.
Living up to old nickname?
The hope, of course, is that more people will start to head downtown. And with a growing arts community, restaurant scene and several housing construction projects going on, the hope is that Glens Falls is at the beginning of something big.
“It’s a wonderful thing to watch and be part of,” said Bob Murray, whose Shelter Planning firm has worked with the city on several revitalization projects. “It’s truly the kind of place where people will get in the car, drive to, then wander around and marvel at the small-town ‘Hometown U.S.A.”
That last reference, incidentally, dates from the 1940s, when Look Magazine named Glens Falls “Hometown U.S.A.” By the ’50s, however, Look’s idyllic images gave way to something else entirely. It’s the same old story. The Northway went in. Businesses spread out into the suburbs to take advantage of that highway. People spread out into the suburbs, too. Urban renewal plans to demolish aging buildings and make way for new construction took hold. But as Davidson pointed out: “Urban renewal did a great job knocking buildings down. It just didn’t build anything in its place.”
Like many other cities, Glens Falls is still recovering. And despite all the strides people such as Davidson, Murray and the mayor point to, there are still “For Lease” signs in several storefronts downtown. Glens Falls is not Saratoga, they all agree.
But Davidson said that’s OK. People, he said, are looking for smaller places — cities and towns that aren’t as upscale, as posh — places where there’s still value.
The downtown is small. A 15-minute walk will get you through most of the urban core.
No matter. The quality of what you can see there has improved dramatically in recent years. Keep in mind, however, downtown is a bit more quiet on Sundays as some shops close. The weekend day tripper is advised to travel on Saturdays.
Here are some ideas for eating, shopping and entertainment (in that order). But keep in mind, this is a short list. Explore at your own will and make your own discoveries.
- Rock Hill Bakehouse — Tucked behind the main buildings of Glen Street, this cafe is the place to find a strong French roast and fine biscotti. With a selection of sandwiches on the menu, it’s also suitable for lunch.
- Ridge Street Coffee Co. — Same deal as the Rock Hill Bakehouse, this one is in a historic, marquee building overlooking the roundabout. Stop in for a cup of joe or stay for lunch. If you hit it right, there just might be live music in the basement, just as there was on a recent Sunday afternoon.
- Davidson Brothers Restaurant and Brewery — For more substantial eats, head to this mainstay on the main drag. The brothers serve everything from classic pub fare to vodka penné, along with their own acclaimed micro brews.
- Siam Thai Sushi — A few doors up Glen Street from Davidson Brothers, this relative newcomer serves a combination of upscale Japanese and Thai cuisine in a historic building.
If that doesn’t whet your appetite, walk up Ridge Street, where Fiddleheads and Bistro Tallulah (see review on Page G7) are across the street from each other, both offering upscale fare. Poke around a little more and there’s also a selection of sub shops and pizza joints if you’re on a budget.
- Red Fox Books — This community book store, which opened in late 2006, is in a charming, old building with exposed brick walls. But everything here goes beyond ambience. For one, there are plenty of events for the bibliophile, or just plain old bookworm.
- Dog Ate My Homework — Geared toward “teens and tots,” this Glen Street shop has everything from books to furniture to toys — all in a shop you can loose yourself in.
- Sterling & Co. — A boutique offering everything from hand-selected quality furniture to gourmet cookware, Sterling & Co. is in a classic downtown setting, in the thick of it all on Glen Street.
- Aimie’s Dinner & Movie — On the entertainment front, Aimie’s solves the age-old quandary: How do you find time to get to the restaurant, eat, pay the bill and still make show time? Here you can eat your shrimp scampi, while you watch the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
- Charles R. Wood Theater — Doing plenty to make Glens Falls an arts destination, this 300-seater hosts everything from live music to film to local productions, and is the summer home of the Adirondack Theatre Festival.
- Queensbury Hotel — If you want to turn a day trip into a weekend, this 125-room Victorian-style hotel is in the thick of downtown. So don’t let the name fool you.