Rice readies to lead APA
New director’s first day is March 8
SARANAC LAKE — The Adirondack Park Agency’s new executive director isn’t a 46er — she’s not even a 6er.
Saranac Lake native Barbara Rice describes herself as an “easygoing hiker” who just likes to be out in the woods. She grew up running around Adirondack forests — making forts outside, hiking, swimming and camping are as integral to Rice’s life as her experiences in local and state government. She believes that her connection to the park’s natural resources is what makes her uniquely qualified to serve as the APA’s executive director.
Rice is rooted not only in the forest preserve here, but also in the people, businesses and politics of this area. Five generations of Rices have lived in the Adirondacks. Rice Furniture, where Rice has worked as a managing partner in the past, is a three-generations-old staple on Saranac Lake’s Main Street that’s celebrating 75 years of business this year.
“Ultimately I think it’s the deep connection (to this area) that is really vital to understanding the work that I’ll be doing,” she said.
Her professional resume helps, too. Rice is wrapping up her work as the state assistant secretary for economic development under Gov. Kathy Hochul, a role she assumed in 2018 under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She worked as an APA commissioner from 2016 to 2018, she represented District 7 on the Franklin County Legislature from 2014 to 2018 and chaired the legislature in 2017. Her hometown work is equally robust, including experience as a Saranac Lake village trustee, as director of the Saranac Lake Local Development Corporation, and as a member of the Harrietstown Board of Assessment and Review.
Rice will officially begin her work at the agency on March 8, with only a trip to Florida separating her new work at the APA from her previous position as the assistant secretary for economic development.
Rice expects that she’ll initially have a lot of catching up to do when she gets back from the beach: meeting with APA staff, getting an idea of what’s happening in the agency, hearing what people are working on and what their ideas are moving forward. So far she’s worked with former executive director Terry Martino, who told Rice what she’s been working on and what she sees as priorities at the agency. Rice said Martino and agency staff have helped her become familiar with activities happening at the agency, but she expects the learning process will be an “ongoing education.”
Once she familiarizes herself with the agency, Rice said she’s interested in prioritizing the work she’s trained for her whole life: issues that deal with the interplay between economic wellness for communities and protection for the environment.
Rice believes the APA could have a role in addressing the local housing crisis in a sustainable way. As assistant secretary for economic development, Rice said she often dealt with housing developers who cited a lack of public infrastructure — water and sewer lines, specifically — as a deterrent to building affordable housing. She thinks the agency has an opportunity to work with local governments to determine what’s needed in local municipalities, like critical infrastructure, and that the agency can encourage “smart growth” in those areas.
She said that Gov. Hochul’s proposed Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act would help Adirondack communities get closer to reaching their affordable housing goals by identifying public infrastructure needs, mitigating increased stormwater and flood-related impacts and making it more economically reasonable to transition to cleaner, greener energy.
She’s also interested in continuing the agency’s role in the state’s push to improve cell service and broadband accessibility.
“I think it goes without saying that the pandemic really emphasized the critical importance of technology in our life — for education, health, public safety, remote work, everything,” she said. “It sounds a little cliche but it is true that it’s not a luxury, but it really is a necessity in the 21st century.”
Rice led a cellular task force as assistant secretary for economic development, and she helped implement the $500 million New York Broadband Program that incentivized private companies to expand broadband in underserved and unserved areas of the state. She said she believes the agency could progress its current efforts in covering the park by finding innovative ways to improve service that would minimize its environmental impact, like seeking out small cell technology to reduce the environmental impact of larger cell towers.
Rice also wants to keep an eye on the state’s road salt reduction efforts. The APA has a representative on the state’s Road Salt Reduction Task Force, which is expected to meet for the first time on Feb. 28. The task force was created under the Randy Preston Road Salt Reduction Act to study the impacts of road salt use and methods for salt reduction, and Rice said she’s interested in those findings.
In terms of other priorities, Rice said “there’s so much,” and she’s excited to get in her role and get to work.
Rice has a positive outlook for the agency when it comes to addressing problems and maintaining transparency. She said she doesn’t see anything “super problematic” going on at the agency, but she wants to get in her role and witness the inner workings of the agency before identifying any potential problems.
When asked if she has any priorities related to improving transparency at the agency, Rice said she is in full support of the governor’s statewide transparency initiative and believes the APA’s transparency plan is “excellent.” She noted the APA transparency plan published on the agency’s website, which establishes the agency’s current practices in transparency and defines goals to improve transparency there. Some of those goals — like using WebEx to broadcast agency board meetings and public hearings — have come to fruition, while others — like improving the agency’s social media presence — have not. The agency hasn’t posted meeting notices, public comment periods or news updates to its Facebook or Twitter since November 2021.
Rice said one transparency-booster she’s looking forward to is getting the agency board back to meeting in person, with the public in attendance. She expects that the board will meet in person again by its April meeting. By then, she said she’ll have a month of work under her belt.
Rice has always maintained a home here with her husband, but she’s looking forward to being in this area full-time again — grabbing a coffee from Origin, picking up a sandwich from Lakeview Deli, dropping in at Rice Furniture, taking the loop around Moody Pond with her dogs. The rail trails in Albany aren’t the same, she said.