Winter Carnival committee talks ’24 pros and cons

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee met on Tuesday for a debrief on what members called an overall overwhelmingly successful event, which brought in huge numbers of visitors, provided many events and caused an influx of money into local businesses and organizations.

As members spoke about the positives and negatives they saw throughout the 10-day event, many felt it was unfortunate that their celebration of the success was marred slightly by controversies at the Gala Parade, which many people wanted to weigh in on throughout the meeting.

Two entries in the Gala Parade lineup sparked outrage — a monster truck with its hood wrapped in the Confederate flag design and signs calling for a ceasefire in Gaza carried by musicians and dancers. These symbols led to division and fierce debate in town this week, as well as a confrontation between the musicians and dancers and a parade organizer on parade day.

This was Rob Russell’s first year as the Winter Carnival Committee chair, who took over for Jeff Branch after Branch was chair for seven years. It was a tough first year, he said.

He thanked his predecessors, the executive board and the committee for helping him through the “quagmire.” He apologized to the businesses who were caught up in the drama.

Jodi Gunther thanked Russell for being their “fearless leader” and “taking it on the chin.”

After Carnival ended, not all the letters Russell received were congratulatory, which saddened him greatly. But he teared up, not when he was talking about the negatives, but when he spoke about the positives — seeing a child full of the Carnival spirit by participating in a game or after seeing snow and ice for the first time. This nearly left him speechless.

Russell said Carnival organizers will be looking at all areas of Carnival while preparing for the 2025 celebration. And they are anticipating some changes. These won’t happen next month, he said. The process of crafting the next Carnival will be long and will go right up until next year’s Coronation.

Winter Carnival Committee Secretary Nancy LaBombard also sits on the executive committee.

“I, too … look forward to addressing some of the problems that were pointed out to us this year,” she said.

LaBombard said they will move forward and learn from their mistakes.

“We don’t diss the whole thing because it was an awesome, awesome Carnival this year,” she added.

A consensus among a large portion of the committee was that the unwritten rules of Carnival — especially for the parade, which contributed to the drama — should be put into writing.

There has long been an unwritten “no politics” rule of the Gala Parade, but it is not part of the guideline sheet marchers get for their floats.

“I would suggest to the executive committee — no unwritten rules,” Kathy Dyer said. “Write them down. Make them ironclad.”

Phil LeBlanc, who helped organize the parade, agreed that unwritten rules need to be written, but he wondered how they would enforce them. If someone has a motive and an urge to do something political, it’s going to be hard to stop them, he said.

“We have to put something in place that gives us some protection,” LeBlanc said.

Dyer said she didn’t hear anyone complain until after parade day when the photos hit social media. Sam Baker said he did.

“You didn’t hear anything about them. Maybe you were lucky,” Baker said. “Everybody I bumped into did have something to say.”

He said this was mostly Saranac Lake natives who live out of town and were returning for Carnival.

“The younger people who come back for Carnival, it seemed to resonate a little more with them,” he said.

Marty Rowley said the committee has handled it well.

“We’ve all figured out that we should do the right thing,” Marty Rowley said. “We’ve all figured out that means we have to be sensitive to everybody. We have to be respectful to everybody. And we all do that. … We just show kindness and sensitivity.”

Chrissie Wais said these sorts of things are part of putting on a big event.

“We’re not the only entity to face these kinds of questions and these controversies,” Wais said.

“Make the rules as clear as possible,” Wais said, adding that the executive committee should consider consulting with sponsors and community groups when crafting the rules.

Official Carnival photographer Meachele Manchester saw practically all of Carnival. She brought her camera to all but three events throughout the 10 days. She said she saw the fruits of all the work people put into Carnival, adding that some people work every single day for a month to make it happen, and others organize around the year.

Manchester also helps run the Carnival Facebook page. She said she hides negative comments on their posts — not just to protect Carnival’s image, but to protect the committee from toxic online chatter.

They put so much into the event and she doesn’t think they deserve to see that.

“I don’t want any of you to ever feel like one or two people sitting behind a keyboard have a right to put down an entire group, thousands and thousands of hours, passion, spirit,” Manchester said.

Of course there’s room to improve, she said.

“We’re gonna be fine,” Manchester added.

“Complainers will complain,” Chris Grimone said. “We shouldn’t let the negatives rain on our wide-ranging success.”

Joe Plumb said Grimone should have said “rain on our parade.”


Another through-line in the meeting was that Carnival is growing and reaching a scale it has not seen in years.

LeBlanc said it is reaching a new high capacity and experiencing “growing pains.”

Committee members said they need to be able to adapt to the throngs of people coming in from around the region, the northeast, U.S. and the world, putting strain on the village’s limited parking, food, safety, bathrooms and cell service.

Beryl Szwed worked in the Carnival History Hut throughout the week, where she said 1,430 people signed the guest book — including folks from 10 countries and 27 states, including Hawaii.

Mary Brown pointed out that the Weather Channel featured the Ice Palace several times in the lead-up to Carnival. The fact that so many people are learning about Carnival and coming to town, she said, needs to be a thread in their planning for next year.

“There really isn’t enough food downtown,” Katie Fischer said.

After the parade, she said every place had at least an hour waitlist. If people weren’t early, they couldn’t even get an eggroll, she said. She proposed getting food trucks downtown.

Multiple people said they need to work on handicap parking.

Dave Rockefeller said parking has always been a problem and will likely always be a problem, adding that handicap parking for the Ice Palace is important but a hard solution to find. They could allow handicap parking at the state boat launch next to the site, but they would need to have volunteers there to “police” that.

Plumb said there’s previously been talk about closing one lane on River Street along the lake side, turning the three-lake road into a two-lane road with no center turn lane.

“It seems like that’s a solutions but it doesn’t seem like it’s an easy one,” he said.

Cell service was also very slow at times of high use, especially during events on the weekends. Grimone said Verizon has “boosters” they could use to meet the high demand.

Rowley was frustrated the state Department of Environmental Conservation does not open the bathrooms it built with hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money at the boat launch next to the Ice Palace during the winter, and that the committee needs to pay for outhouses there.

The weather, though, is completely out of their control. Milt Adams proposed planning coniferous trees along the shore to shade the backside of the Palace. The sun decimated the back wall in the warm temperatures this year.

The Winter Carnival Committee’s next public meeting will be the theme-pitching meeting on March 12 at 5:30 p.m. at the Elk’s Lodge.


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