As state grants go, this one is solid

It’s generally appropriate for our common purse of tax money to pay for things that benefit the public, especially in cases where the private market economy will not easily and reliably provide such things.

That often comes in the form of publicly owned assets such as roads, water-sewer pipes, parks and schools, but sometimes it also makes sense for government to partner with private entities to pay for things that are valuable to the public at large. For instance, the state of New York pays for part of the important healing done at St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, as well as the biomedical research done at Trudeau Institute.

Those are good examples, but New York is also full of bad ones. The state wasted more than $14 million of tax dollars to build a filmmaking hub in a Syracuse suburb, which the film industry barely used. And we know from recent trial convictions that some of the Governor’s closest allies steered certain state contracts to developers who paid into the governor’s campaign fund for the privilege.

Voters are wise to this, so any time the government wants to spend public money for projects that help private business people, it should be very careful to avoid waste and uphold ethical standards.

And we think the village of Saranac Lake has been careful with the plan it put together to attract a $10 million grant from the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Likewise, the fact that the state chose such a sound proposal is a good sign.

Village officials began by soliciting potential projects that could get grant funding. That openness to community input, right from the start, made this a grassroots product rather than one driven by outside developers.

There are more than 40 projects on the village’s grant map, and $10 million won’t go that far. It will be focused on three areas that could use some attention: the Dorsey Street parking lot, including the River Walk and the backs of Main Street businesses visible to everyone driving in on the pan highway; what used to be called the Church Street Extension, between Bloomingdale Avenue and Woodruff Street, as well as part of Woodruff Street; and upper Broadway and the Depot Street area, where the potential has lagged for decades.

The one project the village board insisted be part of the grant is to move Pendragon Theatre downtown, specifically the corner of Woodruff and Church. This is no speculative public arts center, as happens in many communities nationwide. This nonprofit theater has been in the community for 37 years and has consistently been excellent — its quality is tried and true. But it has always struggled for funds. The former dairy barn it has occupied since 1986 was never fully adequate: It has no real dressing room — just a curtain at one end of a backstage hall — and only one bathroom, and it doesn’t own much of its parking lot. It still served well for more than three decades, but now it needs some fairly major work. We agree with the theater’s board that an expected $6 million move downtown is a better investment than nearly $1 million just for a new roof and insulation. Moving it downtown will give it more capacity to put on more kinds of productions (the current backstage can’t accommodate more than a handful of actors), more visibility and mutual benefits with other downtown businesses (patrons can pair a show with dinner or drinks).

There are no luxuries of the blueprint on display in the theater lobby, just a slightly bigger building with amenities such as an administrative office and multiple bathrooms. Anyone used to the backstage facilities at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts — not that those are luxurious — will still probably find the new Pendragon’s backstage pretty small.

If the village’s DRI proposal is followed, we don’t think this $10 million of public funds will be wasted on risky ventures, outside interests, propping up things that will never fly, or enriching anyone in particular — and therefore it looks fairly immune from waste or corruption. We think it rightly focuses on lifting up parts of downtown where the boost could do the most good. It shows that “downtown” doesn’t just mean Main Street. All in all, it reflects priorities that we share — and that we think most Saranac Lakers share as well.

The exuberance shown in the Hotel Saranac ballroom Tuesday for the governor’s announcement is a sign of that, but the grant plan has to satisfy people who weren’t in the room, too.

We don’t want private entities to get too used to relying on taxpayer funds, to socializing losses and privatizing games. But it’s also sometimes worth a bit of public investment to get some excellent public benefits rolling when they wouldn’t happen otherwise.

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