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Support 20-somethings; build apartments

If you want your local community to succeed long term, the best thing you can do is to make it a good place for people in their 20s to live.

Every small town in America, pretty much, worries about losing its children. Many high school graduates leave town and never come back.

At that age, though, they’re not children anymore. Many want to strike out for somewhere new. As every parent knows, there’s only so much anyone can do to make someone be somewhere they don’t want to be.

But here in the Adirondacks, we have a special gift. This is a place where many other towns’ children want to come in their late teens and 20s. Many come here to attend Paul Smith College or North Country Community College. Others come to work the many jobs available in tourist towns such as Lake Placid. Some just show up because they want to get out into the woods.

We know this firsthand. The publisher and editor of this paper chose to move here many years ago, in our 20s. We know many of the people reading this editorial did, too. Ask anyone at random on the street in Saranac Lake, for instance, and there’s a good chance that’s how they got here as well.

We didn’t have a lot of money to spend at first — settling for less income is often a tradeoff for living here — but over time, the 20-somethings who settle here contribute a great deal to the local economy and community.

But it’s harder for young people to move here now than it was when we did, especially in Lake Placid. And there’s one main reason for that — a housing crunch.

Twenty years ago, loads of apartments in Lake Placid could be had for $300 or $350 a month, which was quite affordable on restaurant or retail wages. Now, Lake Placid alone has more than 700 short-term rental units, according to AirDNA. It’s not like someone built those units in the last two decades. Almost all of them were already there, we suspect, but have been converted from renting by the month to residents to renting by the night to vacationers. Now they’re off the market as apartments, and the scarcity of what’s left has driven up prices.

This isn’t just a result of raw capitalism. Our tax dollars were used to seed the field that produced this thorny harvest — along with, we must add, a bumper crop of profitable grain.

The state of New York invests tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year in attracting more tourists to the Adirondacks. Among other things, it paid for I Love NY promotion of the Adirondacks, a new $16.2 million welcome center on the Northway, a new $19.3 million campground in North Hudson and an upcoming Alpine coaster ride and an upgraded winter sports facility at Mount Van Hoevenberg, all of which was most recently estimated to cost $60 million. And these are all good things. They bring more people to appreciate our special part of the world and thereby boost our local economy in enormous ways. Tourism gives opportunity for businesses to exist and employ people. It keeps many of our towns alive and helps some of them achieve great prosperity.

The state also invests in local enterprises and parks through the likes of Empire State Development grants, including the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and Regional Economic Development Councils — millions of state tax dollars pumped into our communities as partial reimbursements for development projects that fulfill job-creation promises. That, too, is good, effective, responsible public aid.

Big government supports senior citizens, not only with Medicare but by offering adult centers where they can get together for meals, fitness and social activities. Government helped build two high-rises in Saranac Lake so seniors on tight fixed incomes wouldn’t have to live in decrepit housing.

Government also supports our children in ways that cost a lot of money but are very much worth it: public schools, health care, Head Start day care and universal prekindergarten.

But government, both big and small, almost never spends a dime on ensuring that communities can accommodate 20- and 30-somethings, who often make up the core workforce in a community.

We are not at all suggesting that governments spend more money, but we think some of the tax money spent on tourism marketing — from the state budget and local occupancy taxes — should be redirected to the one thing that is needed most in communities such as Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Wilmington and Keene — housing that’s affordable for the people who live and work there.

Housing isn’t the only need for 20-somethings, but it would be a great start.

By the way, this isn’t just for outsiders moving here. Local young people should be able to afford to live here, too.

You may say, if there’s such a demand for apartments, then some developer will build them. We certainly encourage local developers to do so, but they aren’t. Market dynamics may be holding that up. We need to look into this more before we can say for sure, but one local developer told us that construction costs are so high that a developer can’t really afford to build apartments that would charge rent less than $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom. That would be more than most young workers can afford.

Again, that’s just one developer’s take, and that market could sort itself out, which would be great. But local communities should be thinking about this stuff and making sure they have enough apartment housing.

If one invites loads of guests to one’s house, one needs to be able to accommodate them and also to keep them from inadvertently damaging one’s home.

This is why the Essex County Board of Supervisors needs to pass a law ensuring that if it raises the occupancy tax from 3% to 5% — something the state legislature has already approved — it will commit the extra 2% to local projects that help communities handle and/or mitigate tourism.

For instance, bed tax money could help developers cover, say, 20% of apartment construction, with the condition that rents in the new units fit typical local workers’ wages.

We can’t see how this would cost anywhere near as much as our government currently spends on children, seniors or tourism.

Housing was brought up as a need for the Winter World University Games coming to Lake Placid in 2023, but while we see lots of spending in construction on sports venues, we haven’t heard anything definite about housing developments. It is needed urgently, not just for this sports event.

Businesses can’t properly benefit from a growing tourism economy if they don’t have labor, and communities can’t benefit if they miss out on the next generation.

A persistent labor shortage at local businesses, reported on the front page of this week’s Lake Placid News, attests to that. So do demographic studies sponsored by both local government and environmental groups. They show that towns inside the park are, on average, significantly older and with fewer children than their counterparts in the rest of rural New York and the U.S.

Yet many young people do want to live here, so let’s make them feel welcome. If we don’t pay attention or value them enough, we will continue to squeeze them out — and handicap our communities.

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