In many ways, 2012 was a great year for Saranac Lake. Here are some of the highlights:
-We placed two new biotech companies in our downtown with their 50 private-sector employees and received a statewide award for doing so as we combined them with Trudeau Institute and Bionique to form a "biotech cluster."
-The Community Store, fueled by 600 local investors, completed its first year of operation and brought national and international media attention to Saranac Lake.
-The Adirondack Carousel opened, fulfilling the dream of the legions of dedicated volunteers who donated time and money to make it happen.
-We completed a new $13 million water system, increasing the quality and quantity of drinking water for users, and eliminating the decades-long regulatory burden associated with our former surface water source.
-We have new sidewalks and streets in much of the village, thanks to a million-dollar bond and repaving necessitated by the water system program.
-Recreational trail planning and development efforts for mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing made significant gains through meetings with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to support trails in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest, trail building on Mount Pisgah and Dewey Mountain, and progress on a trail connection between the two mountains.
-The Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a 2012-13 budget that complied with the state's 2 percent tax cap, keeping village taxes down even as costs of services continue to rise.
-The American Management Association petitioned for annexation into the village, citing the significant benefits that it believes are associated with being a business located in the village of Saranac Lake. Thanks to the organizational work that occurred in 2012, the Saranac Lake Local Development Corporation enters 2013 ready to roll as a force for economic, tourism and community development in Saranac Lake.
-Beautiful weather, fun events and positive energy and efforts from local businesses, supported by many volunteers and the village board and staff, combined to make the summer of 2012 a grand success for all.
-Gov. Andrew Cuomo continued to make Saranac Lake a regular vacation stop, walking into our local newspaper office and challenging us to come up with an "anchor tourist event." He continued to tout the Adirondacks as a national attraction and talked about our region throughout his recent State of the State message.
-Our children, their teachers and coaches were honored by the village board for their excellence in drama, music and sports throughout the year. We are truly blessed by the artistic and athletic abundance that we enjoy among the young people in our community.
So much good, but 2012 also presented challenges and showed the need for redoubled efforts in 2013.
The chamber of commerce went through a process of change, ultimately choosing to regroup and focus on a more limited role of providing member services. This provided a significant challenge to the community, requiring new approaches for planning and supporting special events, downtown advocacy and tourism marketing in particular. The village Community Development Office and board members - along with local businesses, the Saranac Lake Local Development Corporation and the Tourism Council - have emerged as partners for these important efforts. The chamber remains a partner in these efforts as well and has recently hired Katy Van Anden as a capable and energetic new director.
The rails-and/or-trails debate devoured barrels of ink in our local newspapers, and the two sides avoided compromise and brainstorming as many in the community remained perplexed as to all the issues and the facts presented by each party. The village was the first municipality to advocate that the state of New York update its unit management plan for the rail corridor and bring those stakeholders together in a defined and fair process to find the right pathway toward the future. State leadership on this debate is ultimately the only path to its resolution if the two sides cannot find common ground themselves. However, the very fact that the two sides are so far apart may provide a disincentive for the state to weigh in. We continue to encourage constructive discussion among the two sides.
The Great Recession seems to be abating as housing starts and building permits are starting to rise after years of consistent declines. However, there are far too many properties that are suffering from lack of maintenance. Though our population grew in the last census - one of the few to do so in the Adirondacks - our village housing stock remains an enigma, anchored in its bulky and awkward "cure porch" past, costly to heat and hard to retrofit for modern-sized families, and in need of solutions to future sustainability.
Most of our local businesses are holding their own, always welcoming to friends and neighbors but always struggling to make ends meet. We have lost several businesses over the past year and have added a couple of businesses, but there are storefronts that need to be filled and some buildings that could be improved to enhance the attractiveness of the village's downtown to visitors and residents. The recent closing of Casa del Sol reduced the local dining options in that portion of the village.
Significant nuts-and-bolts issues remain:
-E-911 services - a worldwide constant - is still not fully implemented in our village.
-The 2 percent tax cap remains a formidable challenge to small villages as state mandates and rising costs outpace our capacity. It decreases the village's ability to invest in community development, which is necessary in order to create jobs and increase the tax base. If those investments are not made, whether they are to create opportunities for businesses or make Saranac Lake a better place to live or visit, the community will spiral downward. Village government is as lean as it has been in many years, so reducing costs means reducing services.
-We desperately need a new public safety building to house our fine fire department, rescue squad and police force, but the price tag is staggering. A cost-effective solution is critical to the village's future.
-Property tax fairness to village residents remains elusive, with village taxpayers paying for services from the towns that they do not receive. This issue needs to be discussed among the municipalities in 2013.
-Police services agreements need to be discussed with willing towns to protect village residents from liability for calls outside the village.
The purpose of these State of the Village Reports is not to hide our heads in the sand while patting ourselves on the back. Rather, it is to honestly recognize the challenges facing us today and tomorrow, and plan for them so that we can meet them head on with resolve and energy.
We have a tremendous Board of Trustees - Tom Catillaz, Allie Pelletieri, Barbara Rice and Paul Van Cott - who spend countless hours in meetings and on the phone and computer, talking to people, doing their homework and trying to find the best solutions for Saranac Lake. Along with the great people of Saranac Lake, especially the scores of dedicated volunteers, we are girded for the coming year, excited and anxious to make good things happen.
In yesterday's installment, we talked about our accomplishments and shortcomings of 2012. Tomorrow we will lay out a game plan and strategy for 2013 that will position Saranac Lake for success and sustainability in the years ahead.