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Bad choice to lead our grant requests

The Quality Inn on Saranac Avenue in Lake Placid is seen in February. The two-story building up top is planned to become a three-story Tru-Homewood Suites in the future. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council’s new annual report notes that New York state has set certain priorities it wants regions to address in their grant proposals this year: child care, “placemaking,” environmental justice and workforce development.

In recent years it’s been hard for employers to find workers, and it’s hard for workers to find housing and child care.

But then the council gets it wrong in picking the priority projects it asks the state to help pay for. This year’s biggest request, at $6 million — almost half of the $13 million priority project ask — is to help the new owner of a Lake Placid hotel tear it down and build a bigger one in its place.

This is a bad request on several levels.

First, while we love Lake Placid, it is the last place in the North Country that needs help in building visitor amenities. Plenty of communities struggle to establish some kind of economic engine, but Lake Placid’s tourism motor is racing. The village is full of tourists for most of the year, offering plenty of return on investment for hotels, restaurants and stores. Any smart, hard-working business owner should be able to make it on their own here, without government assistance.

Second, the big multi-million-dollar REDC grants should be for projects that transform a community. For instance, two new hotels in Tupper Lake’s business district are a big deal since, while Tupper has put many pieces of its tourism engine together, it might not get new hotels otherwise. Likewise, saving and restoring the historic Hotel Saranac, the anchor of downtown Saranac Lake, has brought that village’s business district out of the doldrums, and it now enjoys a steady stream of visitors. This chain hotel in Lake Placid, however, is not historic or rare. It’s one of many hotels on the commercial strip of Saranac Avenue. There’s nothing transformational or “placemaking” about this project. Most people in Lake Placid won’t even notice.

Third, Lake Placid already has more jobs than it can fill. What it needs, desperately, is more workers, but workers can’t afford to live there because housing is more scarce and expensive than it used to be. Hundreds of once-affordable housing units have been converted into short-term rental units. Dual Development’s plan for the current Quality Inn says it would add more than 50 jobs, not including existing jobs and construction workers. We’re skeptical about that number, but even if it proves true, it might do more harm than good to the local economy since it would spread the labor pool thinner.

Having this request lead the list hurts the North Country’s chances of getting funding for its other, more deserving priority projects.

For instance, at first glance we feel OK about the taxpayers giving $300,000 to help a co-op buy out Ward Lumber, as a way to let this long-time business outlast the Ward family.

We’re on the fence about a request for the Play ADK children’s museum in Saranac Lake. It shows promise, not only as an exciting draw for families but also to spur development in the long-neglected Depot Street area — but it already has been pledged almost $1 million from the state in Saranac Lake’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. If it gets another million from the REDC, that would mean state taxpayers would cover a full third of its roughly $6 million price tag. Are private investors willing to take on more of that risk? Yes, this might do wonders for Saranac Lake, like the Wild Center nature museum did for Tupper Lake, or it might not be quite so big. In Plattsburgh, the Imaginarium Children’s Museum had to merge with the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum’s Kids Station in 2014. We’d like to see how a children’s museum in Potsdam is doing after its first year.

The North Country REDC seems to be following the state goals in asking for help with a residential-commercial building in Canton. The region’s current economy doesn’t make it easy for developers to build housing to meet the demand, especially at a price point that works for most of the local workforce. REDC grants could help with that, and in return the state could require that rents be affordable.

In response to a question from our reporter about why the Saranac Avenue hotel replacement should get state funding, North Country REDC co-Chairman Jim McKenna, of Lake Placid, said the council is looking to improve its pool of grant applicants. Does that mean the council didn’t have much to work with? If not, maybe this just isn’t the North Country’s year in the REDC game.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The state has primed the engine a fair bit, but business people and communities shouldn’t get too dependent on government to run our economy.

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