They meet in the late '90s. She's from Auburn, he's not. But they're drawn together by the same passion. That passion leads them to build something in her faded downtown, something that revitalizes it. People who didn't have a reason to visit Auburn, or to build their own something there, do now. So the two keep building. They keep investing money, and themselves, into Auburn.
Then the coronavirus arrives.
That's the story of not one, but two anchors of downtown Auburn.
Both Auburn Public Theater and Prison City Pub & Brewery find themselves in parallel situations as the COVID-19 pandemic seizes everyone in its devastating grip. They each began as ways for their founders to share their passions — for arts and culture, for food and craft beer. Then they each sparked a new, resurgent era of downtown — the theater in 2005, the brewpub a decade later. And now, they each have been blindsided by economic catastrophe in the middle of million-dollar expansions — a new café and event space, and a 10-times-bigger brewery.
But both the theater and Prison City are creators. And so that's how they're coping with the pandemic — creatively.
'Silver linings in a very dark cloud'
Before the pandemic, Auburn Public Theater hosted events almost every day.
From music and theater to movies and stand-up comedy, the Exchange Street venue's calendar was packed with experiences that were up close and personal.
That calendar is still packed. But the events are now socially distanced and virtual.
On its Facebook page, the theater has been livestreaming concerts, panel discussions, wellness sessions and more several days and nights a week.
Virtual events have their limitations, acknowledged Angela Daddabbo, the theater's artistic director. Nuances like eye contact and vocal tone can get lost in the stutters and garbles of livestreams.
But online programming has also expanded the possibilities of what the theater can do, Daddabbo said. Not only are its livestreams drawing viewers who never would have been able to come to Auburn for the same event in person, but Daddabbo and Executive Director Carey Eidel are also booking performers who never would have been able to come, either.
A recent discussion on racial injustice, inspired by the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, has more than 3,000 views. That dwarfs the number of people it would have drawn in person, Daddabbo said. The theater has also hosted events with friends it's never been able to book at the right time, like Joanne O'Connor, a board member who lives in New York City, and California musician Jeff Connor.
"Those have been silver linings in a very dark cloud," Daddabbo said.
AUBURN | Ten years ago today, 102-108 Genesee St. was technically still Paul's Pocket Billiards, junked pool tables and all.
Another drawback of virtual events, Daddabbo continued, is the fact that so many artists and entertainers around the world are doing them right now. In the face of that competition, she and Eidel have tried to sharpen their focus on events with local appeal. And they see themselves sustaining that focus after the theater reopens — if only because they'll have to.
Phase four of New York's reopening plan, which includes entertainment venues, is on track to begin by July. But it could be awhile longer before the performers who tour those venues are comfortable doing so, Eidel said. That's because of both the health risks they'd face due to the pandemic and the pay cut they'd take due to the 25%-50% reductions on capacity that will be required by the state.
"What band is going to travel for a quarter of the money?" Eidel said.
Some touring performers who were booked at the theater this winter and spring are still on the schedule, postponed to summer and fall, but Daddabbo and Eidel understand that they could very well be postponed again, or canceled. Refunds would be offered, they said, and arrangements have been made with promoters to spare both sides of any legal responsibility.
Meanwhile, local performers, movies and Auburn Public Studio summer camps have been canceled altogether. There are just too many unknowns, Eidel said.
But the theater will tiptoe back into hosting in-person events Wednesday, when it partners with the Finger Lakes Drive-In to host the first in a series of socially distant music-and-movie nights there.
Daddabbo and Eidel are "very curious" about the future of cinema, they said. The pandemic is expected to hit movie theaters particularly hard due to the reluctance of audiences to return and the increasing availability of new movies on streaming platforms. But the downtown theater has long been screening easily available movies, sometimes for free, and done well, Daddabbo said.
"People drawn to that content tend to be very community-minded," she said. "It's about the experience with other people."
The theater's event Wednesday at the drive-in will also be the first time in three months that it's been able to charge admission.
Studs have gone up and tarp has come down at Auburn Public Theater.
Financially, the pandemic has hurt the theater far more than it has artistically. Daddabbo said one full-time employee and all the event staff had to be laid off in March. The theater secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its four remaining full-time employees salaried until the middle of June, she continued, but another one of them will have to be laid off then.
The theater has been researching ways to monetize its virtual programming, Eidel said. A key source of expertise on the matter has been Steve Keeler, chair of the School of Media and the Arts at Cayuga Community College. And with nascent technology like virtual reality and 5G, Eidel believes it may not be long before the theater can present online events as immersive as in-person ones.
But until the theater begins ticketing those concerts and other events, it's relying entirely on donations to stay afloat. Since March, it's brought in thousands of dollars in one-time donations and memberships, Eidel said, and local foundations have been "very receptive and stepped up." The theater also has some history of adapting to financial hardship, Daddabbo noted.
"Our entire business model has been shifting our business model," she said. "While this is a playing field no one's ever encountered, we've never lived on easy street."
That business model will experience one of its biggest shifts ever soon: the opening of Café 108.
A for-profit business that will pay rent and donate revenue to the nonprofit theater, the café is part of a $1.9 million expansion that also includes the restructuring of the building's Genesee Street side and the renovation of its 13,000-square-foot basement into a black box theater and rentable multipurpose space. Daddabbo has called the expansion the theater's path to "true sustainability."
For now, though, she and Eidel will be happy to have whatever business it can bring in. Delayed a couple months by the pandemic, the café will open in about a month for takeout, serving food and local favorite Simple Roast Coffee. Around the same time, a renovated studio will be ready for Zumba, meditation and other practitioners to lead socially distanced classes there.
The second phase of the theater's expansion, the basement, will be completed later. Eidel said it depends on the fate of the city's $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, which allocated $700,000 to the theater. The state has projected a $13 billion loss of revenue due to the pandemic, clouding the grant program in uncertainty. But Eidel hasn't heard anything yet.
"Across the board, whenever we ask anything, they're in the dark as much as anyone else," he said. "Everyone's sure it'll happen, it may just be delayed."
As Daddabbo and Eidel wait for word on the grant, and for their café to open, they remain grateful. They're grateful for not only their viewers and donors, their staff and performers, but also the city that has supported their passion since they opened the theater. And they hope its downtown can recover from the pandemic and continue the renaissance their theater helped begin.
"When we come back from this, and the way in which we come back from it, will be a direct reflection of how the community as a whole truly feels about downtown," Daddabbo said. "We protect and serve the things we love. And love, in the end, is the currency that is going to matter most, I think."
'In a word, it's been exhausting'
Prison City Pub & Brewery has been making a lot more Mass Riot these days.
And during a pandemic, they figure, why not give the people what they want?
"People are still very thirsty and want to buy local," he said, citing the national rise in alcohol sales during the pandemic. "But we have to deliver."
That's why brewer Ben Maeso has lately stuck to making Mass Riot, Double Doink and other popular hazy IPAs, as well as pastry stouts like Wham Whams, the beer that won the Governor's Cup (best in show) at the New York State Craft Beer Competition last year. With its bar and restaurant closed, Prison City has been canning those beers for curbside pickup since the middle of March.
Adventurous by nature, Maeso used to split his time between those beers and niche styles like dunkelweizens and English bitters. But those styles aren't just slower movers for Prison City. They're also intended to be paired with the brewpub's food, Schulz said. And with that food limited to pickup and delivery sales, it makes no sense to be adventurous right now.
As a result, Prison City has sold about as much beer this year as it did at the same time last year, Schulz said. It's making a little less from that beer due to its new business model, though. Before the pandemic, Mass Riot was sold in 16-ounce pints for $7, or 32-ounce Crowlers for $14. Now, with the use of a mobile canning line, it's sold in four-packs of 16-ounce cans for $18 — 36% cheaper.
But that's better than the 75% drop in food sales at the brewpub.
"We've gone from a restaurant with a brewery, to a brewery with a takeout food business," Schulz said.
Overall, Prison City's business is down about 50%, he said.
AUBURN — It's an increasingly common sight weekend mornings at the intersection of Dill and State streets: lines of people, mostly young adult…
Knowing other restaurants and breweries that are down as much as 90%, Schulz feels fortunate. But he also misses the people behind those numbers. The brewpub has reduced its staff from 45 to eight, he said. The Schulzes considered a Paycheck Protection Program loan but its staff declined, as they're making more from unemployment insurance and the extra $600 a week it offers.
The other people Schulz misses are Prison City's customers.
He and Dawn are heartened by the local support they've received at the curb, but they still wish they could interact with people at the bar, at the table. They've always thought of the brewpub as their second home, one they welcome customers into with inspired food and beer. So they and their staff are tired of running in and out of it, exchanging few, if any words through their face masks.
"In a word, it's been exhausting without the bar being open," Marc said. "A combination of sad and exhausting."
Prison City could be allowed to seat customers again as soon as June 12. That's when phase three of New York's reopening plan, which covers restaurants and food services, is expected to begin.
But the Schulzes know their brewpub won't look the same that day. Although the state has yet to finalize its reopening guidance, Prison City staff will likely have to wear masks and gloves, sanitize more rigorously and limit the brewpub's capacity to 25% or 50%. Other possibilities include installing plastic barriers and assigning a staff member to monitor social distancing, Dawn said.
The parties Prison City used to welcome will have to wait awhile, she said. But the Schulzes are talking to the city about expanding their outdoor seating to compensate for the loss of indoor capacity.
"We only have so many resources," Dawn said. "It's a little scary to think about."
Less scary is the imminent opening of Prison City's long-awaited expansion.
AUBURN — When it came time to thank his staff, Marc Schulz got emotional.
Tentatively named Prison City Farmhouse and located on 5.5 acres of land at 251 North St. in Auburn, the expansion will raise production of Maeso's beers from less than 1,000 barrels a year to 10,000. The $4.25 million project will also include a tasting room and farm plot, as well as the renovation of an 8,000-square-foot barn on the property for events like weddings and concerts.
But opening first, fortunately for the Schulzes, will be the 14,000-square-foot prefabricated metal building housing Maeso's new 20-barrel brewing system.
The pandemic hasn't significantly delayed the building's construction, Marc said, as the brewery is considered an essential business by the state. Since ground was broken in October, the structure has been raised, plumbing installed and tanks delivered. So the building should be ready for beer production by late summer, as scheduled. And Prison City won't waste any time putting it to use.
"This is the best thing that could've happened for us," Marc said. "We were wondering if we were making a mistake. But with the velocity of our sales, we know we're gonna be able to sell the beer."
All that additional Mass Riot and other beer will be sold curbside at the facility or the brewpub, he said. Prison City could also begin shipping beer directly to customers within the state, which New York is allowing during the pandemic. But even when there's enough beer to accommodate those sales, the Schulzes would prefer their customers come to them — or, more specifically, to Auburn.
That's why they passed over sites outside the city, as far as Ithaca and Rochester, for Prison City's expansion.
And that's why they're worried the pandemic will slow or even stop the progress they've helped downtown Auburn achieve, Dawn said.
"We will see businesses close. We will see new businesses not open. We will see existing businesses struggle," she said. "(But) I think if people continue to shop downtown via curbside or delivery, visit newly reopening places, and support the downtown area as much as they can, we will come out of this OK."
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