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Coalition of NY theaters and elected officials seek state funding in next budget

 The members of Alive Downtowns!, along with local government officials, at the Palace Theatre in Albany on February 17, 2023
Alexander Babbie
Alexander Babbie
The members of Alive Downtowns!, along with local government officials, at the Palace Theatre in Albany on February 17, 2023

Local theater and arts executives and area political leaders made their case for $20 million in state funding at a recent press conference at the Palace Theatre in Albany.

The Alive Downtowns! Coalition is representing 13 upstate performing arts centers in their push for the money.

Kevin Johnson is executive director of the Palace Performing Arts Center, which he calls the “jewel of downtown Albany” and the city’s heartbeat. First and foremost, Johnson extolled the economic benefits of keeping the lights on in older venues that have sometimes struggled to make ends meet.

“Like most other historic downtown theaters across New York State, the arts, culture, entertainment, and community programs provided throughout the year engage our communities and bring thousands of visitors into our downtown areas each year,” Johnson said. “When the Palace Theatre’s marquee is lit up and we have entertainers’ names in lights, downtown is filled with activity, parking lots are full, reservations at hotels and restaurants are hard to find, and our hotel’s lobbies, bars are filled with laughter.”

The group says its facilities employ more than 1,000 people and have an economic impact of over $350 million per year. The members say they are seeking operating support from the state similar to what is provided to New York's zoos, aquariums, and public broadcasting operations.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan says theaters, especially the Palace, have impacts beyond the stage.

“One of the biggest joys I had this past Halloween- we live in a neighborhood that typically doesn’t get lots of trick-or-treaters, but because the Palace opened this place up to the neighborhood for Halloween, we had a street full of children,” Sheehan said. “It has changed the way that the neighborhood accesses this building and thinks about opportunities.”

Fellow Democrat and Capital Region state Assemblyman John McDonald agrees.

“Economic development is about engaging folks to go to places they normally wouldn’t go to,” McDonald said. “Our downtowns, our cities, which are the lifeblood of the suburbs- suburbs wouldn’t be here unless the cities weren’t here first- they are perfectly situated to welcome people into their communities, and it leads to all the other good things that come along, whether it’s restaurants, delis, coffee shops, you name it.”

Troy Deputy Mayor Chris Nolin praised the coalition for its collaborative approach.

“It’s our cities coming together as one Capital Region, as one upstate. We’re not individually the city of Albany, yes, we have our own needs, but we have to come together and support our various entities. These cultural attractions, the Palace, Proctors, the [Troy Savings Bank] Music Hall, bring people to our downtowns, those individuals go to our restaurants, they see the public art initiatives that we’re doing,” Nolin said. “They contribute to the lifeblood of our communities. We have people that move to our communities because they go to our cultural entities.”

Proctors CEO Philip Morris says theaters, hit hard by the COVID pandemic and the resulting closures, need every ounce of support.

“We have to make sure these groups are not just here, but in fact capable of growing and developing new activities,” said Morris.

Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The state budget is due April 1.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.