A critical position for Saranac Lake to fill

Jeremy Evans speaks at a May meeting of the village of Saranac Lake's Development Board. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

Jeremy Evans is a difficult staff member to replace. As Saranac Lake’s community development director since fall 2007, the Peru native has been a hard worker, a fair arbitrator, a good listener and just a good, honest guy.

Furthermore, he deeply loves Saranac Lake, and not just for what it “could be” but for what it is. Instead of trying to mold this village to fit his or someone else’s vision — maybe more quaint, high-end, outdoorsy, artsy or funky — he accepted it for whatever indescribable amalgam that it is and worked to make it better at being that. How could he harbor illusions when he lives the densely packed French Hill neighborhood, where some old houses have been nicely fixed up but many are decrepit, or in various stages in between?

His approach to problems has been a mix of realism, dialogue, hard work and collaboration with other local people and groups. It’s “Do what you can with what you have,” with the added boost of serious planning knowledge.

Sure, it’s easy to want bigger, faster changes, but he helped this community tackle some big things: a new comprehensive plan that won an award as the best in the state, a new land-use code, apartment inspections to upgrade substandard housing, and a Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail Master Plan, just to name a few.

So we and many other Saranac Lakers will miss him as he takes on a bigger challenge as head of the Franklin County Industrial Development Agency. We don’t have much faith in IDAs, which we see as relics of a former era. Franklin County’s IDA has issued bonds for building projects at Trudeau Institute and Paul Smith’s and North Country colleges, but not for a while. The business parks it supports in Lake Clear and Tupper Lake languish. Making this agency worthwhile will be a huge lift, but if anyone around here can do it, it’s Jeremy Evans.

Meanwhile, the village of Saranac Lake plans to hire a new community development director, but not necessarily someone with Evans’ educational background in planning and code enforcement. The idea is, now that the planning and code process is done, it would be better to have someone run with that than rework it. Mayor Clyde Rabideau, village Manager John Sweeney and Trustee Allie Pelletieri support a restructuring to reduce the burden on Evans’ successor, but Trustees Paul Van Cott and Rich Shapiro think the village should hire a professional planner. Doing so would “keep the momentum going,” according to Tim Fortune of the Downtown Advisory Board.

We could see things potentially working out either way, but we’d prefer that the village at least try to find someone with a planning background. We know firsthand that the best staffers don’t always have degrees in their field — only one of our eight current reporters and editors majored in journalism in college — but we also would never advertise a job to suggest that journalism majors need not apply.

Plus, professional education seems more important for this community development job than for a journalist. The new person will have to face heavyweight consultants with the Lake Flower Resort; address a possible wave of downtown businesses and renovations after the Hotel Saranac opens; balance economic optimism with poverty, drugs and run-down buildings; and learn from the comeback success stories of cities and towns nationwide.

It’s a hugely important position — arguably the most important with regard to Saranac Lake’s long-term quality of life. We trust village officials appreciate that and will keep expectations high.