SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce is headed in a new direction.
Just where that new course will lead the village's largest business organization is still a bit of a gray area, but it likely will be influenced by some of the feedback the chamber's board of directors received Tuesday at a public meeting held in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
The meeting drew a crowd of about 50 people, including business owners and local residents.
Jeff Dickson, chairman of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee, stands and speaks Tuesday at a public meeting the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce held in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The open forum comes after a year of turmoil at the chamber, highlighted by the resignation of several board members upset with the direction of the organization and the performance of its director, Sylvie Nelson, who stepped down in May after seven years at the helm.
From the beginning of the meeting, chamber officials sought to assure the crowd that the organization is not only stable but is moving forward. James Buyea, vice president of technical services at Paul Smith's College, a self-described business entrepreneur and a new chamber board member, said the board has been replenished with new members and has been holding strategic planning sessions. He also said the chamber's daily operations and plans for the summer season have been unaffected by the changes over the past year.
"A lot of changes have occurred," said Buyea, who led the meeting. "People have come, people have left, things have happened - enough to make people a little uncomfortable. Hopefully tonight we can bring some peace back to that because, I can tell you right now, there's been no lapse in member services through any of the turmoil that I've heard about."
At its recent planning sessions, Buyea said the chamber board identified areas it needs to focus on: improving communications, providing support services to members, promoting business success in the region and supporting tourism. But the most important thing it needs to do is listen, Buyea said.
"We really want your input to provide us with direction on where to take the chamber, correct some of the missteps in the past and create new partnerships going forward," new chamber board President Craig Stevens said.
After the new board was introduced, Buyea opened the floor to comments and suggestions from the crowd.
Ernest Hohmeyer, owner of the Lake Clear Lodge, said the chamber should craft a business plan that focuses on its core mission. If the chamber's mission is business services, marketing and tourism, for example, Hohmeyer said the business plan should identify the community need for those initiatives and take a hard look at how to make them financially sustainable. He and others suggested bringing together the many groups and agencies that are working to boost Saranac Lake's business community, like the chamber, a new local tourism council, the village's local development corporation and groups like the Adirondack North Country Association.
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee Chairman Jeff Dickson said that same kind of coordination is needed for the many events that take place in the community.
"There are some things my group does very well," he said. "We organize and run things quite exquisitely, I think, but we're lousy marketers. At some point, whether it's through the chamber or the tourism council, there has to be a mechanism to build upon and make use of our strengths, and to correct or supplement our weaknesses."
Chamber board member Nicole Brownell said the chamber recognizes that it has to do a better job supporting and helping coordinate events. She noted that the chamber has a revamped website with an events calendar that's coordinated with that of other chambers around the region.
But Jason Brill said it will take more than a website.
"The real marketing out there is the social networks," he said. "That's where it's at. You can't be just waiting for people to come to your website."
Bonnie Krasher, who works for WSLP radio and recently moved to the community from Albany County, said knowledge of how to tap into social networking media like Twitter and Facebook is lacking among small businesses. Educational workshops on those and other topics could be offered to businesses in the area, Krasher said.
But there were some serious questions asked about who will lead the chamber as it moves in a new direction. Village Trustee and Rice Furniture co-owner Barbara Rice asked when a director will be hired.
Buyea said the board wants to stabilize the organization and plot its new course before it brings on a new director.
"We need to provide the new director with a new direction of where we want this chamber to go, rather than hire somebody that will go off on some tangent," Stevens said. "It's also a financial consideration of what does a director cost, and how much can we afford to pay? At this point it is not in our budget. Not to say it won't be in six, eight or 12 months, but the time frame is going to be in that range."
Clyde Baker, a new board member and also a co-owner of Rice Furniture, said he was "disturbed" to hear that the chamber could be without a leader for a year.
"I'd like to see it go a little quicker," he said. "I think you need a new face. You can't do it all with volunteers."
Some local business owners had sharp criticisms of the chamber: both its past course and how it's moving forward. Hotel Saranac owner Sewa Arora accused the chamber of badmouthing his business and sending potential customers of his and other businesses to Lake Placid.
Bill Plumb, owner of Adirondack White Pine Cabins, said he's had a "frustrating" experience with the chamber over the years. He said it continues to lack a solid business plan for itself.
"I haven't heard any of the strategic planning talking about where you're going to raise the money and what kind of staffing you'd like to have for the chamber," he said.
Others were willing to hear the chamber out. Photographer Mark Kurtz admitted he's had issues with the chamber in the past but said he's very optimistic and excited about the chamber now, given its new board membership and the way it's reaching out to the community for input.
"I'm willing to give them some rope for a while," he said. "Let's give them a chance. Let's see what's going to happen."
Stevens said the board will continue to meet monthly to craft its new direction, using the feedback it received from the meeting and the feedback it's likely to get from others in the community going forward.