In Tupper Lake election, the mountain looms large
TUPPER LAKE — The three men running for two open seats on the town council are unified in what they want for Tupper Lake — the reopening of the Big Tupper Ski Area, more affordable housing, and better relations between the town and village governments — but each one comes from a different background, which they say makes them most qualified for the positions.
John Gillis, a Democrat and life-long woodworker, is looking to get more involved in the town he’s volunteered with for many years.
Six years removed from his terms on the village board, Rick Donah is running on the Republican and Conservative lines to advocate for Tupper Lake from the town board.
After two non-consecutive terms on the village board two decades ago, Tim Larkin is running on the Republican and Conservative lines to build recreational trails and improve the quality of life in Tupper Lake to attract more young residents.
Gillis has run the town’s youth soccer program and worked on the James C. Frenette Sr. Recreational Cross-Country Trails, named after his uncle, for years. Now, he said he wants to take his engagement to the next level.
He believes his background in construction will translate well to politics. It’s not just making cuts and nailing boards.
“It’s planning things, collaborating with people, being able to take complex assemblies and break them down into small pieces,” Gillis said. “It sort of is a natural fit for everything the town does.”
A self-described “numbers guy,” Gillis says he does not “ballpark” numbers. He wants the details before he makes a decision. An old woodworking adage is to “measure twice, cut once.”
Gillis says he doesn’t have a specific agenda or plan, he’s open to ideas and keeping an open mind. He admits, he initially thought the cross-country ski trails on the cart paths at the town-owned golf course would never work.
He’s supportive of the town purchasing the Big Tupper Ski Area again, for a reasonable price. He doesn’t want to put the taxpayers on the hook for a big chunk of money.
As a 12-year member of the board of assessment review, Gillis said, “I’m keenly aware of where our tax dollars come from.”
He’d like the Tupper Lake Business Group to investigate affordable housing solutions and use his position on the town board to “keep Tupper Lake’s flavor of a working class town.”
“I don’t want to be in that last generation that grew up here that can afford to live here,” he said.
He says affordable housing is not a crisis yet in Tupper Lake, but he wants to get ahead of the curve. If the tourism plans are successful, he said the town will need a lot more people in the service industry to work there, and they’ll all need affordable housing.
He can see four new STRs on his street, which he said all converted from long-term rentals in the past two years. He’s unsure how the town should respond, though.
He said Saranac Lake’s STR decisions will be a “bellweather” for Tupper Lake’s decisions in the future. Still, he feels the local government is not talking about this enough yet.
“I’m glad we’re behind on the curve,” he said. “But I think it’s important now to start planning, so we don’t fall behind.
Gillis already works with the town and village in the construction of the ski trails. He said it’s “humbling” to see Tupper Lake’s spirit of volunteerism.
He’s unsure what his position on town-village consolidation is, but he said if it would change the village’s very low electric rates, that would be a “dealbreaker.”
Donah, a self-described “man of action” and local tourism “insider” believes he’s the best candidate because he’s been an advocate for Tupper Lake for a long time.
Donah was a village trustee from 2011 to 2015, when he lost reelection to outgoing trustee Ron LaScala.
He misses it, he said. He said his desire to run comes from “deep inside,” but it also comes from up high on Mount Morris.
In 2020, Donah, a former ski patrol member at Big Tupper Ski Area on Mount Morris, started a petition for the state to purchase the defunct ski area and run it through the Olympic Regional Development Authority. This petition has gotten 10,000 signatures to date.
The town has a chance to take action on the mountain now, as there is discussion of the town purchasing it from Franklin County through a foreclosure auction and turning operations over to the state. He said the town can’t rely on developers anymore. He believes the community has more love, drive and resources for the mountain than anybody else.
He believes the town, which initially created and ran the ski area, has a right to take it again.
“It’s all negotiable. In my opinion, I don’t think the town should have to pay anything for it,” he said.
The town invested a lot of money into the ski area when it owned the mountain and he said the county can choose to give it back.
The state has put $400 million into Lake Placid in recent years, he said, and now it’s putting $4.5 million into the Saranac Lake Civic Center. He wants the state to put some money into Tupper Lake.
“The majority of investment in Tupper Lake, except for infrastructure, has been driven by local taxpayers,” Donah said.
He believes the town should be more vocal in getting county resources, too, and fight for its slice of the tourism marketing pie.
The bed tax is generating plenty of marketing dollars for the area, he said, and “Local taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize it.”
Donah said he fought for Tupper Lake to get its share while he was appointed to the Franklin County Tourism Advisory Committee for two three-year terms, ending in May 2020.
He also thinks the town should take on more economic issues.
“I think the village carries the brunt of economic development responsibilities,” Donah said. “I think the town should take a way more active role.”
Donah said he’d be a voice for village residents on the town board. He lives on Park Street in the village and says he understands village issues.
“Taxes are high in Tupper Lake,” he said.
Village residents pay town and village taxes, but he thinks sometimes they get forgotten.
Donah said he’s resisted turning his apartment rentals into short-term rentals.
“I prefer to provide housing for people to live here. It’s a personal decision,” Donah said.
He’s hesitant to “impose more regulations,” on STRs, not wanting to “over-regulate businesses.”
When it comes to potential consolidation, he wants a formal referendum to let the taxpayers decide.
“I don’t think we need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies. I think we just need to put it to a vote and see what they decide is best,” Donah said.
He says he already knows enough, and he doesn’t want to pay for more consultants.
Larkin served on the village board for two non-consecutive terms, once around the turn of the millennium, and another in 2006. A chunk of his first term was taken up by preparations for the possible Y2K catastrophe which was predicted on New Year’s Day 2000.
But when the village wasn’t working with the apocalypse in the backs of their minds, he said he learned a lot about working with budgets and unions.
Now, he said he wants to be part of the big things he sees going on in town. Larkin is a member of the Tupper Lake Business Group. This group provides the ideas, he said, but it’s up to the town to carry them out. On the town council, he wants to get grants for Tupper Lake and have an ear in Albany.
He’s supportive of the group’s first big ask of the town, to buy Big Tupper and find someone to run it.
But Larkin said he does not want his town to become a “tourist town” like Lake Placid.
Though the recreation plan is often talked about in terms of the tourism it could bring, Larkin said the real reason he wants to develop hiking, biking, skiing and snowmobiling trails is to draw people to live in Tupper Lake, or stay for a season.
“A tourist comes to town once,” Larkin said. “I’d like to see somebody’s face more than once.”
This means they’re continually contributing to the community and the economy, he said.
Tupper Lake is in need of more working-age people, he said. There have been more young folks leaving the cities during the pandemic, he said, but there’s is a housing issue in Tupper Lake that needs to be addressed, too. The housing stock needs to be added to, he said, but he doesn’t want tract housing.
Larkin, who lives inside the village, supported consolidating the town and village governments in his days on the village board. He said the town and village share a lot of services already, and both have smaller staffs now than they used to. He said he still supports it, but believes the state should help with the cost of combining governments.
In the meantime, he wants the town and village to collaborate more.
Larkin said the town can help the village with its water quality problems by getting grants the village can’t get.
Larkin’s got a very specific platform item, too. He wants to standardize sewer districts across the town. As an excavation contractor he said he’s seen people buy houses and find out they need to pay for a grinder pump installation. He said he wants to bring the whole system up to the same level by working with the village Water and Sewer Department.