Fields of dreams
Hearing Monday on zoning change for former landfill, proposed site of music venue and sports fields
SARANAC LAKE — Plans for a music venue and village-owned athletic fields on Willow Way in the southeast end of town — where a landfill was decommissioned 27 years ago — will be discussed at a village meeting next week.
The village has scheduled a public hearing for 5:30 p.m. Monday on a proposal to amend the village development code, adding amusement and recreation services as an allowed use to District C3.
“That doesn’t mean anybody can just go ahead and do it,” Mayor Jimmy Williams said.
To be allowed to hold amusement and recreation services, the development board would need to issue a special use permit.
The Development Board made a recommendation earlier this month supporting the request for the amendment and sending it to the village board to consider.
The district is the site of the former landfill, which was capped in 1996 and has been vacant land growing tall with grass ever since. Willow Way is off McKenzie Pond Road. The district also includes North Country Community College and several residential neighborhoods, including the Pine View Apartments complex.
Amusement and recreation is currently allowed in districts B-1, B-2, B-4, E-2, G, I and J2.
Almost 12 years ago, the village of Saranac Lake and town of North Elba were awarded a $435,000 grant from the state to help convert the dump into a multi-use sports complex with playing fields, similar to the North Elba Athletic Fields at the closed landfill in Lake Placid.
Williams said they are just starting to make progress now.
Department of Public Works Superintendent Dustin Martin said the work of bringing in hundreds of truckloads of fill to level out the playing field has ramped up this year.
“We’ve been bringing in fill from just about everywhere,” he said — village projects and material from other municipalities willing to share.
Village employees still need to grade the land, lay topsoil and reconfigure the gas vents, which are currently the candy cane-esque tubes dotting the landscape. They are not yet close to completing the project, according to Martin.
Williams said he feels there’s a need in the village for more fields to hold rugby, lacrosse, Surge and high school games.
A Farmer in his field
Bob Farmer and Christine Collins stood in a neighboring field on Thursday and envisioned the Mountain View Performing Arts Field, a music venue they hope to operate at the site, with a 3,000-person capacity.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Collins, the promoter and venue manager-to-be.
Collins started booking shows when she was 14, organizing concerts at The Getaway Youth Center, the predecessor to the Saranac Lake Youth Center. After 21 years of working in the music industry away from the Adirondacks, she’s returning to organizing concerts in Saranac Lake.
“I’m coming full-circle,” she said.
Farmer will have front-row seating for the concerts. The stage, if the venue is approved, will be in his front yard.
Driving up Willow Way and pulling up a hill to the field, there’s a sudden break in the dense trees, the horizon opens up and mountains can be seen spread out across the landscape, including Scarface Mountain.
Farmer bought the property in 2018. At the time it was all tall grass.
“I sit on my mower a lot,” Farmer said. “And that’s where all my ideas come from.”
Initially, he had plans to subdivide it and sell the field to the village, but the village didn’t want it at the time. So he began dreaming of other uses for the wide open field. Primarily, he realized it would be a great place for concerts.
Farmer is also hoping for a “public-private partnership” with the village’s athletics fields, offering his as another field for games. With his brother serving as the school’s athletic director for years, Farmer said he knows there’s a lack of athletic fields in Saranac Lake.
And he sees it as a venue for events, weddings, artisan fairs or festivals.
This property would need to be annexed into the village.
North Elba Town Supervisor Derek Doty said the Town Council hasn’t discussed this formally yet. There are several steps that would need to happen first. Namely, the changing of the zoning allowances in the district Farmer’s property would join. Doty said Farmer initially asked the town to use his property as a venue. The board felt it would set a precedent for the town of using a residential district for commercial reasons, which they didn’t think fit.
But he added, if the village fields are going forward, they might consider it. The town would lose tax revenue, but they might agree, Doty said.
Farmer said there’s a lot of legwork that’s been done and much more to do. The hearing on Monday is a pivotal moment for their plans.
“Without the zoning, we can’t do anything,” Farmer said.
An issue they’ll have to hash out is parking. There’s not a lot of space at the site itself, but Farmer hopes he can work things out with the village to share parking with their fields. He also said there’s a path up to the site from the North Country Community College dorms, which the Adirondack Rail Trail runs right by, so people would be able to walk or bike there from town.
Farmer believes the field could be a source of economic growth for the town, bringing in visitors from all over to see popular bands, supporting the economy.
“This is a gracious usage of his property to give back to the community,” Collins said.
If the zoning change is approved, Farmer said they could begin holding concerts next summer. Bands are currently being booked for next year’s warm season.
Farmer and Collins are looking to bring in a mix of genres and sizes, from big acts to regional bands and from alternative rock to country. Collins has experience bringing in names people recognize but said their focus will be on small, medium and a few larger acts.
“But Taylor Swift ain’t coming,” Farmer said.
“Here’s the thing. I’ve got to be mindful of my neighbors right there,” he added. “We’re not out in the middle of nowhere. Part of the charm of this, I think, is that you can walk down the railroad path and get here. … The drawback is that there’s gonna be some people who are like ‘What the hell is going on up there?'”
Farmer said he’s talked with some of the neighbors and eased their fears. They’re not planning on doing concerts every weekend. Only five or six a summer, and it will be a seasonal venue since it’s outdoors — only during the warm months.
Farmer said one neighbor told him, “If you get the Gibson Brothers, then I’m on board.” It’s not always about the noise level, he said, it’s more about who is playing.
The hard part is music tastes are so varied, personal and entrenched. Even Farmer and Collins have had debates over who they want to book. He wants to concentrate on country. She wants more rock and punk, things that would bring a younger crowd. They’ve been doing a lot of bargaining and compromising.
Getting away and coming back
Farmer said he doesn’t know much about the music business, so he turned to Collins, who was recommended by a friend.
She knows the music industry well and knows how to put on a show. Collins has already written 21-page tech and hospitality riders — contracts to present artists with.
She’s been in the business for most of her life, getting her start in middle school, organizing punk rock shows at The Getaway.
For Collins, The Getaway was a lifeline in her tough teenage years. She credits it with keeping her away from the addictions that plagued her family, and with launching her life path.
One day, after an argument with her father, she was wandering around town, crying, and heard music coming out of the building on the Dorsey Street parking lot. It was a punk rock show. A guy with a blue mohawk said, “come on in,” so she did, and she found an accepting community.
“It felt like I was home,” she said.
Collins started organizing concerts at the center. Jamie Armstrong was The Getaway’s director at the time, and she is grateful for Armstrong giving her that opportunity to learn a valuable skill and passion, and for fostering her love of music management.
“That culture, when I was younger, was what really kept me out of trouble,” Collins said. “It helped a lot of people. It really molded them.”
She was booking a lot of punk rock shows back then, and local bands — Abbot Hayes, Chicago Typewriter, Monday Morning.
While organizing shows there, she wrote her first grant and would pack dozens of kids in the small space for a concert every month.
Collins was self-taught a lot at first and graduated high school with years of experience booking music. She went on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and has been in the music business ever since.
She would like Mountain View Performing Arts Field to be a place for Saranac Lake youth to get involved in the industry, like she did.
The village board will take several votes on Monday relating to the zoning change in District C3.