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A compromise in face of ROOST resistance

Saranac Lake board keeps funding tourism agency but invests same amount in village advisory boards

SARANAC LAKE — Leaders of three village advisory boards asked the village Board of Trustees this past week to break the cycle of giving the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism $12,500 a year to market the village, and to instead to put the money toward their ideas. They got the second request, not the first.

The village board decided Monday evening to continue with ROOST but to give another $12,500 for the advisory boards’ initiatives.

The money would come from mostly unspent funds, according to village Treasurer Elizabeth Benson: $5,000 unused by the Community Development department, $5,000 reallocated from the Walk of Fame and $2,500 previously earmarked for a public ice skating program.

It’s unusual to budget new initiatives in the middle of the fiscal year, but village board members said that even though they wanted to stick with ROOST, they also wanted to invest in the energy and ideas of the three volunteer committees that had made the request: the Downtown Advisory Board, the Arts and Culture Advisory Board, and the Parks and Trails Advisory Board.

In a letter to the board, Downtown Advisory Board Chair Tim Fortune, a painter who launched the village’s art revival in the 1990s, listed some preliminary project suggestions, such as public art installations, branded downtown signage, free outdoor music or movies, village entrance signs, park furniture, bike racks, playground equipment and concrete ping-pong or cornhole games in parks.

Fortune also brought the request to the board over Zoom during the public comment period of Monday’s village board meeting, along with Arts and Culture Advisory Board Vice Chair Shaun Kittle; Tyler Merriam, chair of the Parks and Trails Advisory Board; Erin Cass of the High Peaks Democratic Socialists of America and Fred Balzac, a village trustee candidate on the Green Party line.

Kittle in particular took aim at ROOST — his former employer — saying the village should not give it local taxpayers’ money since it already gets more than enough from Essex County occupancy taxes.

“I have been shocked to learn that anyone on the village board would consider that option,” he said.

He said the Arts and Culture Advisory Board comes up with many great ideas but struggles to find money to enact them.

“As it turns out, there is money,” he said.

“Do you want village taxpayer money to go to an organization with a $4 million budget?”

Kittle also noted that Franklin County and the town of Harrietstown shifted their tourism marketing funds from ROOST to the Franklin County Local Development Corporation because ROOST did not satisfy their requests for more information about how the money would be spent.

ROOST CEO James McKenna also joined the public comment period, saying, “I guess I can hear the message loud and clear.”

He added, “We think we’ve had some success in marketing the village of Saranac Lake,” and he emphasized that with village support, ROOST can market Saranac Lake as a whole, transcending its division into two counties and three towns.

“Our goal has always been to bring the whole area up together,” he said.

He added that in “Community Jumpstart,” ROOST’s latest marketing phase for reopening from the coronavirus shutdown, 25 of the 32 Saranac Lake businesses that participated were on the Franklin County side. They wouldn’t be represented if the village drops the Essex County-based ROOST, he said.

“We’re comfortable with how you decide to move,” McKenna told village board members. “It gives us a little more freedom to move if you involve the whole village.”

While ROOST’s 2019 budget was $4.4 million and it was supposed to have a little under $4 million this year, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions have taken a huge toll. On Wednesday, McKenna said ROOST now projects it will have less than $2.4 million to spend this calendar year. It expects a 43% drop in Essex County occupancy tax revenue from last year.

Mayor Clyde Rabideau announced the extra $12,500 for the advisory boards at Monday’s meeting. He praised these volunteers but added that destination marketing, ROOST’s specialty, is different from what the advisory boards are doing. He said Saranac Lake makes it to national travel destination lists and gets media write-ups because ROOST lures travel writers to the area. He said each small community can’t afford to market itself nationally, but regionally, ROOST is promoting “Adirondacks, USA” at a level that he predicts will soon be on par with Vermont. He also said ROOST responds to help with every request he makes, on either side of the county line.

“Twelve thousand five hundred dollars is not a lot of money for what they do,” Rabideau said. “The bed tax doesn’t cover everything, and the bed tax doesn’t cover Franklin County.”

Trustee Rich Shapiro said he “hemmed and hawed” over the decision but added that ROOST has proven itself with past support, such as providing a jumbo screen so Saranac Lakers could watch hometown luger Chris Mazdzer race in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

“Although there are many questions about where the money is going, I think the village gets more than its money worth,” Shapiro said.

Trustee Melinda Little said she, too, struggled with the decision. She said the agency’s past efforts have been “terrific … but I would like to see more specificity with the contract.”

Still, the ROOST contract passed with no “nay” votes, as did the $12,500 for the advisory boards.

Shapiro said the 40 or so people on these three boards “are doing wonderful work.”

“Basically we’re getting a whole lot of work for nothing,” he said.

“The energy I’m seeing in the boards right now is just terrific,” Little added.

The next day, Fortune expressed gratitude for the advisory board funding.

“It’s a great first step with the hope that the Village of Saranac Lake will establish an annual investment commitment for the volunteer efforts of the Advisory Boards,” he wrote the Enterprise in an email Tuesday.

Kittle said he was glad for the advisory board funding but unhappy the village is giving ROOST money, too. He said the village board “dismissed and ignored” his concerns.

Village board members weren’t quite sure how the money for the advisory boards will be disbursed, but they said the boards will probably have to submit proposals and take it from there.

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