SARANAC LAKE - The Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce says it is shifting its focus to become a member-services-only organization and will hand off its tourism and marketing roles to the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism.
That new direction doesn't mean a cloud that's hung over the village's largest business organization for more than a year is gone yet. The chamber's only remaining full-time employee recently resigned, it has been without a director since May, and it continues to struggle financially.
"There's been a lot of issues that we've had to deal with, and there still are, but I believe we've come a long way," Craig Stevens, president of the chamber's board of directors, told the Enterprise Wednesday. "I think now we have a much clearer path of what the organization can and should be doing."
The chamber emailed a statement to its members Wednesday. It was titled "Our Current Plans."
"We are in earnest conversation with ROOST for them to take a leading role in marketing Saranac Lake as a destination location," the message read. "This will leave us in a position to center our attention on member services."
Stevens said the chamber is trying to contract with ROOST to provide tourism and marketing services, something he admitted the chamber has struggled to do on its own. In recent years, the chamber has faced criticism from some who feel it has become too member-service-oriented and wasn't doing enough to promote tourism.
"We've been talking with them for months," Stevens said of ROOST. "It would just provide a much more focused program for tourism and making Saranac Lake a destination by updating all the social media content that's out there, and doing a more focused job than the chamber ever has done or could do in the foreseeable future without a much bigger staff."
Stevens said the chamber would pay for ROOST's tourism services in part with the public funding it gets annually from local municipalities. The town of Harrietstown contributes $18,000 a year to the chamber, largely to market the town-owned Adirondack Regional Airport. The village of Saranac Lake gave the chamber $5,000 last year but eliminated its contribution from this year's budget. The village has phased out its funding, once more than $20,000 a year, because the chamber wasn't promoting the village enough.
As the chamber shifts to a strictly member-services-based organization, Stevens said the goal is to put its budget together without municipal funding, "knowing that municipal budgets are tight, and if push comes to shove, we'd rather see that money go to marketing the area."
Some of the member services the chamber would provide include political advocacy on business issues, educational workshops and seminars, health insurance and networking opportunities through social events like chamber mixers. The cost of those services would be paid by member dues and revenue from events like the Sparkle Village craft show.
"This is what we're going to focus on, and the tourism piece is going to be handled by people who know how to do that," Stevens said.
Village Trustee Barbara Rice, co-owner of Rice Furniture, said the village supports the idea of ROOST taking over the chamber's marketing role, but whether it will contribute public money is something that would need to be discussed further.
"The chamber's been through a lot of transition, and at this point what they're saying is, given the staffing issues and the changes that have happened in the last six months, they really don't have the expertise or the ability to do tourism the way it's supposed to be done," Rice said. "ROOST obviously is the top of the game."
In June, the chamber board held a meeting at the Harrietstown Town Hall to get input from the public on where it should be headed. Several people, including Lake Clear Lodge owner Ernest Hohmeyer, suggested the chamber needed to better define its mission.
Asked Wednesday about the direction the chamber now says it's headed in, Hohmeyer said, "I think it's great that they're attempting to create a focus for the chamber." The tourism industry is much more complicated and competitive than it used to be, he said.
"The chamber could handle it at one time when it was a little simpler, but it's become a more sophisticated beast," Hohmeyer said.
The chamber has partnered with ROOST since it moved from the Harrietstown Town Hall to the North Elba Town House on River Street in 2009. Among other things, ROOST provides the chamber with a visitor-services employee whose salary is paid through bed tax money Essex County collects from lodging properties on its side of the village.
That ROOST employee, Courtney Petkovsek, is now the only person working at the chamber office, which is operating from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Adrienne Relyea, who worked for the chamber for five years, has left to start her own marketing business. Relyea most recently served as the chamber's administrator following the May resignation of Executive Director Sylvie Nelson.
Relyea may have seen the writing on the wall. Stevens said the chamber wouldn't have had enough money to keep her when it hires a new executive director.
"We couldn't afford two employees," he said. "That's true."
The chamber advertised the director vacancy and was initially looking to fill the position on a full-time basis, but Stevens said Wednesday that the chamber is now only able to offer a part-time position, due to financial constraints.
"We have to be realistic," he said. "We had about a dozen applicants, and those people are being further contacted about their interest in part-time work, hopefully with the potential that it will eventually go to full-time."