SARANAC LAKE - It was billed as a project that could transform the community and bring hope and healing to veterans and their families.
Two years later, Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake has a different name, no paid staff and little money raised. It held only two programs all of last year. From the outside looking in, the promise of what is now called Homeward Bound Adirondacks, a proposed retreat and reintegration center for veterans and their families, has yet to arrive.
Those behind the project insist it is still moving forward, although not at the pace they initially hoped.
"I completely understand that from the perspective of the community looking for where we are on a continuum, it doesn't look as far along as the expectations might have been set a couple of years ago," said Bob Ross, president of the Homeward Bound board of directors and CEO of St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers. "But I don't think that's because the idea has run out of steam or the commitment is not there. I think it's just taken a little longer than we have hoped or expected to raise a sufficient amount of money."
But it's not just fundraising difficulties. Other people associated with Homeward Bound say there have been disputes about the project's direction and questions about whether Saranac Lake is the best place to carry out that vision.
Nevertheless, organizers say they've recently reached an important milestone in the life of the project and are developing a new vision for a more sustainable program.
"Veterans' care could be the village's future."
That was the headline that ran with the April 15, 2010, Enterprise story that introduced the public to what was then called Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake. Developed by a broad-based coalition of community leaders and veteran advocates, the plan called for construction of a $30 million hotel and conference center somewhere in the village that would host a wide range of support programs, counseling and services for military personnel and their families from across the Northeast. The hope was to have the facility operational by 2013.
Organizers said at the time that the project would build on Saranac Lake's history as a pioneering health resort and, when combined with other veteran-related initiatives in the area, could make the village a center for veteran healing, create more than 100 permanent jobs and breathe new life into the local economy.
Momentum for Patriot Hills seemed to build throughout 2010. The group held its first programs that summer, including one at the Trudeau Institute that featured Doonesbury cartoonist and Patriot Hills board member Garry Trudeau, who grew up in Saranac Lake, plus two U.S. Army generals as well as experts in the field of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Around the same time, former village Trustee Susan Waters was hired as Patriot Hills' executive director, and the group announced it had secured $50,000 in contributions from two private foundations.
But since then, the project seems to have lost much of its momentum.
Organizers had sought $3.26 million in federal funds to lay the groundwork for the project, but the request didn't make it into the Department of Defense fiscal year 2011 budget. After that, future opportunities to seek federal funding were hampered by Congress' voluntarily ban on earmarks.
In the spring of 2011, organizers re-branded the organization as Homeward Bound Adirondacks. The change was meant to clear up confusion for potential donors with Patriot Hills of New York, a Guilderland-based veteran advocacy group that had aligned with the Saranac Lake contingent. Although Patriot Hills of New York's director still sits on the Homeward Bound board, the connection between the two organizations seems to have faded.
Last July, Waters, the only paid employee Homeward Bound has had to date, resigned as the group's director. She has yet to be replaced. Waters told the Enterprise earlier this year that she left because of family commitments and that the parting was amicable, but she also said the organization was still struggling "to find a thread, find a path."
With no staff on hand to spearhead fundraising, and facing a difficult economic climate, Homeward Bound has only been able to raise $30,000 to add to the $50,000 it received nearly two years ago. Its board met only twice all of last year.
Meanwhile, the organization is still homeless. The group had its eyes on the Ampersand Bay Resort, which has been on the market and has hosted some Homeward Bound programs, for its retreat center. But with only $80,000 in the bank, the resort's $13.5 million price tag seems way out of reach. Its owner, Neil Hopkins, told the Enterprise in January that he "can't wait indefinitely," and was moving forward with other plans for his property.
Chicken and egg
Ross admits that he and other organizers of the project were too focused on the opportunity to get public money. When that didn't come, Patriot Hills shifted its focus to raising money from private donors. But fundraising from those sources has been just as difficult to come by because of what Ross described as a "chicken and egg" scenario.
"You need to have enough activity to demonstrate that there's something worthwhile contributing toward, and you have to have enough resources to be able to do meaningful activities," he said.
Ross said the lack of an executive director, even on a part-time basis, is one of the reasons Homeward Bound's board hasn't met as frequently, "because all the people who are actively involved have other major responsibilities." And the organization hasn't been able to hire a new director to lead fundraising efforts because it doesn't have the money to pay someone.
"I think the notion is, we didn't want to do virtually nothing until we raised enough money to hire a full-time person," Ross said. "No question that the board would have wished that we would have accomplished more to date, but I think the programs we have run have all been substantive and successful."
Col. Eric Olsen, chaplain for the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs, pointed to other factors that have slowed Homeward Bound's progress, including "personality conflicts" within the organization. He also said Homeward Bound partnered with some agencies "that we believed were bringing more to the table, and they didn't," though he wouldn't name names.
"We lost our direction a little bit," Olsen said. "Some of the board members wanted to move everything out of Saranac Lake. They wanted to move it to New York City. They didn't think Saranac Lake has the capacity or what it takes to be a flagship. We were saying, 'No I think it does.'"
Olsen said the project also hasn't seen the groundswell of local political support organizers hoped for.
"Part of our stumbling is, when we brought this to the village board in Saranac Lake, the village board said, 'Yeah, that's nice, whatever.' We've got (state Sen.) Betty Little behind us; we've got congressmen behind us. But the locals aren't behind you, rallying and saying, 'What do we need to do to make this happen?'"
Olsen also revealed that they've had interest in the project from other communities, including Lake George and Cooperstown, but organizers are committed to the Tri-Lakes "because we think the Tri-Lakes area would be very successful, and there's been a commitment to the area."
Ross said Homeward Bound only recently became a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, the lack of which he believes was a barrier to corporations and foundations that were considering contributions.
"They need to be able to justify and explain to their boards that they've given to organizations that they feel have met a certain level of viability, and the 501(c)(3) measure is very important in that regard," Ross said.
Now that it has nonprofit status, Olsen said Homeward Bound is expecting "a first hit of funds" through Garry Trudeau and a foundation he's connected to sometime in June.
Homeward Bound also hoped to secure state funding last year through the North Country Regional Economic Advisory Council. It wasn't included among the projects that were awarded funds, but Ross said "we're going to be very aggressive in pursuing that in the second year."
Ross said the organization continues to move ahead with its programs. It has several lined up this year, including three Olsen is coordinating this summer at a private camp on Upper Saranac Lake. Homeward Bound is also sponsoring a program for military spouses that's being organized by Creative Healing Connections in May at Ampersand Bay.
"The most critical issue is getting programs initiated to help our troops coming home now," said Homeward Bound board member Tom Michael, a former Saranac Lake mayor. "That will also help the funding end. As people see what we're doing, they'll be more inclined to support it."
Naj Wikoff of Creative Healing Connections said Homeward Bound has experienced a lull, but is pressing ahead with programs.
"I think the effort with Homeward Bound for a long time was trying to get the big bucks in," he said, "but with the climate in Congress today and all that stuff, that's just not easy. Now we're working on the reality of what we have, which is to raise funds to keep some programs going."
Many of the programs Homeward Bound has organized, including some of those scheduled this year, are geared for veterans or active-duty soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional issues.
Ross said the organization is also working with Clarkson University to develop a different training model called the "Reintegration Academy," geared toward getting returning soldiers back in the work force.
"We'd hope to get collaborations with Paul Smith's College and North Country Community College, we've had some preliminary conversations with them to see how that may develop, and the program is in design phase right now," Ross said.
Olsen said many young men and women are coming out of the military, going into the workplace and failing in great numbers because they're not ready.
"There's a need there," he said. "We want to create a place where the kid who comes of the Guard or out of the (Army's) 10th Mountain (Division) has a place to establish a residence for a year and to take a myriad of options for education and evaluation and be in a community that speaks their language and gives them all the transition tools."
One of the benefits of the Reintegration Academy, Ross said, is it would let Homeward Bound tap into a more sustainable source of funding through the G.I. Bill.
"That program, once initiated, will not be something we have to go out and fund raise for every year," he said. "That's an example where I think we've modified our expectations from being as dependent on current fundraising and attempted to find a mechanism for sustainability."
The village's community development director, Jeremy Evans, who was part of the initial group of supporters for the project, said he understands the funding constraints and challenges Homeward Bound has faced, but he thinks organizers have taken the right approach.
"By focusing on doing programs in the area to show what the different organizations are capable of, I think that's a good approach to take when there's no money," he said. "Hopefully they're building support for Saranac Lake as a place that can really provide some benefit to returning soldiers and veterans. Mayor (Clyde) Rabideau has made it clear the village will support the project in any way we can."
Evans noted that two other veteran-related initiatives that would tie into Homeward Bound have moved forward in the past year: the new Veterans Administration outpatient medical clinic on Depot Street, and St. Joseph's 25-bed community residence for veterans suffering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, which received planning board approval last month.
Ross said Homeward Bound is now "well positioned" to move forward.
"Have we stumbled a little bit? No," Olsen said. "But I also think we've not sprinted out of the gate. We're doing a crawl, walk, run. The vision is still there. We've just got to build a bridge to it, and that's happening now."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.