The challenge for Saranac Lake’s next generation

Saranac Lake’s All-America City delegation poses at a National Civic League meeting in summer 1998 in Mobile, Alabama. From left are, in the front row, Tom Catillaz, Cheri Fisher, Jim Sausville, Bob and Pat Brown, and in the back row, Corey Pandolph, Chuck Damp, Aggie Pelletieri, Eric Freeburg, Deborah McDonnell, Mike Burdeau, Zach Yousey, Sharon O’Brien, Terry Martino and Jacques DeMattos. (Photo provided)

Twenty years ago in 1998, volunteers, businesses and community leaders came together and worked tirelessly to make Saranac Lake an All-America City. This prestigious award is bestowed upon 10 U.S. communities each year by the National Civic League and recognizes places “whose citizens work together to identify and tackle community-wide challenges and achieve uncommon results.”

That generation of Saranac Lakers in the 1990s had a vision, a passion and a purpose. They rebuilt a ski area with a magnificent new lodge. They protected village history by preserving its train station. They conceived and built our River Walk with wheelchair access and connections to parks, thus opening a whole new world of enjoyment for the larger community. They even added a kayak course on the river.

This team of visionaries and doers built many things, and by working together with spirit and determination, they not only leveraged local resources for our future; they also built a community in the process, a family.

This excerpt from the “Winner Profiles” published by the NCL bears a reread: “The Trudeau Sanatorium closed in 1954, leading to a period of economic decline. Seeking ways of breathing new life into a dying community, village leaders focused their efforts on a broader-based economy and placed a new emphasis on family tourism. In 1988, a master plan was adopted outlining the current vision for development in the community which includes emphasis on recreation. … Today the village is faced with an aging infrastructure. Over 85 percent of housing units and infrastructure were built prior to 1940. Water and sewer lines are unstable. HUD grants were secured to replace major arteries, but all the residential areas need updating.”

During the two decades following, we have made great strides. Much of our water and sewer infrastructure was replaced. We invested in our recreation venues by adding a new T-bar and trails to Mount Pisgah, built a skatepark, made our surrounding mountains more of a destination with the 6er program, and the town constructed a new lodge at Dewey Mountain and enhanced the trail system. Lack of lodging facilities was also identified as an impediment to tourism growth, but new hotels are on the horizon.

Notwithstanding, many of the challenges identified in the ’90s remain. Of course they do! For what stands still or is permanent? For example, we lost the Hotel Saranac during those 20 years, but now it is back, better than ever.

It is time for a new generation of Saranac Lakers to step up. Team Saranac Lake of 1998 showed the way and remains an inspiration. New York’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, for example, may be the challenge accepted and accomplished by the new generation. Perhaps it will be affordable housing, maybe a more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. It might be new programs to care for our children before and after school. It could be a new performing arts center in our downtown.

A handful of representatives from a small village, tucked away in upstate New York’s Adirondacks, went down to Mobile, Alabama, one summer day in 1998 and competed against our nation’s largest cities and largest pocketbooks and walked away with the All-America prize because of its heart, its resolve, its volunteer spirit and its straight talk — a lesson and challenge that beckons to us all here and now, a clarion call to Saranac Lake’s next generation.