Village board bows to ROOST
Monday the 22nd was my first Saranac Lake village board meeting. It was an exciting event, with an unusually large number of attendees calling in via Zoom. The topic that drew the crowd was $12,500 in the village budget proposed for “tourism destination marketing” by the non-profit Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.
Representatives of the Arts and Culture, Downtown, and Parks and Trails advisory committees requested that the funds should instead be earmarked for a community enhancement fund. Several village residents offered impassioned commentary about the need for this money to go to these sorely underfunded, volunteer-run committees; how taxpayer money should be spent directly on the community; and how ROOST is already well funded via the Essex County occupancy tax, which in 2019 brought in about $2.9 million. Even ROOST CEO Jim McKenna, though decrying the not-so-subtle anti-ROOST fervor that ran through the meeting’s public comment period, expressed a take-it-or-leave-it attitude regarding the $12,500.
Shockingly, the three village trustees present voted to refuse the reallocation request and instead fund ROOST. Then they pulled a separate $12,500 from other areas of the village budget to satisfy the local committees. Mayor Clyde Rabideau, in equal parts impassioned and patronizing, proceeded to tell concerned residents — a few of whom were destination advertising professionals themselves — they didn’t know what they were talking about. In a statement that rivaled Harold Hill’s “think system” in “The Music Man,” Rabideau went so far as to say that ROOST’s effect on the village “may not be tangible: you can’t see it … but you can FEEL it.” He promised that with ROOST’s help, within 10 years, the Adirondack region be on par with Vermont. You might wonder why we’re not there yet, since ROOST has had a hand in promoting the area for 20 years already.
Rabideau’s reverence for the ethereal relationship ROOST has with the region, and the fact that ROOST is not publicly run yet gets large sums of taxpayer money, reminded me of the feudal system. Flaunting the banners of power and expertise, the $4 million-budgeted ROOST seems to be, in the eyes of many government officials, the only protection for the local serfs, the sole defense from economic ruin should a critical mass of tourists fail to arrive in the Adirondacks for seasonal recreation. Heaven help us if we upset the benevolent ROOST by refusing them the taxpayer money they don’t need, but clearly deserve.
Without an itemized budget of how that $12,500 (let alone the village’s share of the occupancy tax) will be spent to serve Saranac Lake, how can residents know that money won’t be sucked into a black hole of destination advertising? True, one could argue that ROOST will “pay back” the funds with the $20,000 it allots to the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce. But doesn’t that make them an expensive and unsupervised middleman between taxpayers and our own community programs? Couldn’t we instead invest the ample public taxpayer funds that go to ROOST every year in a publicly run, fiscally transparent marketing department, a local-government version of the volunteer committees petitioning the village in the first place?
Even without the question of ROOST’s overall effectiveness in the region, it’s alarming that the village representatives refuse to take into account public commentary when they make decisions with village funds. After all, that $12,500 is not ROOST’s money. It’s not the trustees’ money. It’s not the mayor’s money. It belongs to the people of Saranac Lake.
Sam Balzac lives in New York City and Saranac Lake. His father Fred Balzac is running for a village Board of Trustees seat on the Green Party line.