SARANAC LAKE - Clyde Rabideau admits he was "probably an unknown quantity" in Saranac Lake when he stepped forward four years ago to run for the seat of village mayor.
Now Rabideau is very much a known quantity in the village, and he's riding the record he's built over the last four years, plus the promise of brighter days to come, as he vies for another term in Tuesday's election. He'll be on the Democrat and independent "Saranac Lake's Future" party lines.
"We've done a lot of great things," said Rabideau. "I enjoy the job, but the job's not done."
(Enterprise photo - Chris Knight)
Among the village's accomplishments during his tenure, Rabideau listed keeping tax levy increases below the state's 2 percent cap, even before it was enacted; a $1 million sidewalk replacement project; the completion of a major water system upgrade; bringing two biotech companies to Main Street; and the creation of the Saranac Lake 6er hiking program.
Yet when asked what the village's biggest accomplishment has been over the last four years, Rabideau didn't name any one project or initiative, not even two major hotel projects pending in the village. Well, at least not at first.
"There's a change in attitude," Rabideau said. "You can really feel it on the street. People that you talk to, you can hear it in their voices, their expectations, their hopes. They know Saranac Lake is poised for great things ahead.
"There was at least one or two storefront owners who took their 'For Sale' signs down once they heard the two hotel projects were coming. We get calls all the time now from investors looking at Saranac Lake as a place to either open up a first shop or expand their business. This is proof in the pudding that we're doing something right, and there's a lot of excitement in the air."
Lake Flower hotel
While Rabideau sees both the revitalization of the Hotel Saranac and a proposed 90-room, four-story hotel on Lake Flower as a major impetus for economic development, concerns have been raised about the height, scale and location of the Lake Flower hotel. The village board will have the final say on a proposal to rezone the project site as a planned unit development district.
Rabideau, who runs his own construction company, said the planning process for the hotel is far from complete, but he said the building, as it stands now, "looks too much like a block to me" and should be modified.
"I intend to vigorously pursue this planning process to get an appropriate building for that location," Rabideau said. "I think we can bring it down a touch. I think we can have something to be proud of, a true icon for the village, a real Adirondack-style building."
Developer Chris LaBarge has said reducing the height of the hotel would make it economically unfeasible, but Rabideau said, "That's why they call this negotiation," and pounded his fist on the table with a smile.
Beyond the hotel projects, Rabideau said the village is trying to boost the local economy by building on its nascent biotech cluster. He referenced the $35 million state-funded partnership between Trudeau Institute and Clarkson University, announced last fall by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He also said he's involved with a young entrepreneurs network based at Clarkson, his alma mater, that he hopes will bring new investment to the village. Rabideau also revealed the village has been trying to lure a small Puerto Rico-based biotech firm to Saranac Lake.
Asked about the governor's Start-Up NY program, which creates tax-free zones around state college and university campuses, Rabideau said he doesn't like the idea of giving up local tax revenue but would still use the program to entice companies to the area around North Country Community College.
"Our local college did not submit for the first round. They will be in the second round, I'm told, for qualification for the Start-Up," Rabideau said. "If I can get a 50-person company, and I have to give up $2,000 a year in property tax for those 50 jobs, well, small sacrifice."
While Rabideau called the last four years a "success story" for Saranac Lake's economy, there's obviously still more to be done. There are more than a handful of empty storefronts in the village's downtown, some that have been vacant for months like the former Wilson Farms gas station across the street from the village offices in the Harrietstown Town Hall.
"There's always room for improvement," Rabideau said. "You'll find the (empty) storefronts are isolated to one or two different landlords. We're trying to do everything we can to bring landlord and tenant together. Things will happen, though. Market pressures are coming to bear. By next year we could have one, possibly two hotels open and helping our downtown thrive."
As for the gas station, Rabideau said he expects the site to remain idle for a few years because of a gas spill that's contaminated the ground under the property. He said he's asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to speed up remediation efforts on the site.
Several long-simmering projects have been put to bed in the last four years, like the comprehensive plan and the village's water system upgrade, but others are still out there. The Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department continues to work out of an outdated building that's too small to house all its equipment and vehicles. The village sand pit, once sought by Walmart and seen as a promising site for a retail development, is still just a sand pit.
Rabideau said the sand pit isn't attractive to developers because of access issues and poor visibility from Lake Flower Avenue; however, he revealed the village was in negotiations to bring Tractor Supply Company to the property before it opted to pursue a Ray Brook location. The sand pit is still for sale, and Rabideau said he'd like to see it used for retail, but for now, he said the village will continue to mine it for sand.
As for the firehouse, Rabideau said the village tried to acquire the New York Army National Guard armory on state Route 3 for use as an emergency services building, but the state said no. It could cost up to $12 million to build a new structure to house the fire department, rescue squad and police department, and the village can't afford that right now, Rabideau said. In the meantime, he said the village will spend $70,000 this year on a new floor for the existing firehouse so it can support an aerial ladder truck that was purchased in 2012.
Rabideau said the village has kept taxes under control over the last four years and made significant infrastructure investments without any serious reductions in service. Moving forward, however, he said that's no longer sustainable.
For example, he said the village will have to kick in $190,000 this year, likely drawn from fund balance, toward a planned rebuild of Lake Flower Avenue. That represents 6 percent of the village's general fund budget.
"We've got to look at restructuring in places," he said. "We may have to look at reduction of services."
Rabideau didn't provide any specifics on what services could be reduced or restructured, but he said the next budget will have to have a zero-percent tax levy increase to stay under the state's property tax cap.
The tax levy hasn't increased substantially, but water and sewer rates continue to go up - in the current fiscal year by 9 percent each. Rabideau blamed the increases on the $13 million water system upgrade.
He said the village is trying to keep utility rate increases at or below 2 percent in the future.
Under Rabideau's leadership, the village has taken a more active role in organizing community events, like the Mayor's Cup canoe and kayak races, the 6er program, the Walk of Fame and other activities more typically put on by chambers of commerce or outside groups.
Financially, Rabideau said the village hasn't broken even on these events. They may cost a few thousand dollars per year in taxpayer money, but he says it's worth the investment.
"As long as I'm (mayor), we'll continue to do those special events, and they're very successful," Rabideau said.
Not long after he took office, Rabideau instituted a policy of strictly following Robert's Rules of Order at village board meetings, which has made them more efficient and orderly. These days, most village board meetings last 30 to 45 minutes or less, and often there's little debate or discussion about an agenda item before it's voted on.
Asked if that means board members are having those discussions outside the meeting room, Rabideau said issues are never settled or discussed with a majority together before the meeting, but he said he typically asks a bill's sponsor, either a trustee or department head, to talk with board members individually about an issue "before it hits cold on the floor.
"We like to air out everything, and we don't put the bill on until we go through the whole process of getting it out to all the trustees, answering their questions and so on," Rabideau said. "A lot of the stuff is mundane, but I don't think any of our trustees are hesitant about making their concerns known, if they have concerns about a bill. I think we have a good format."
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.