Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn spoke with town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston on Thursday, May 1 at his office in the Wilmington Community Center.
LPN: What are your main projects in the town of Wilmington?
SUPERVISOR: We're working on a lot of projects.
Town of Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston poses with the historic Lake Placid News editorial board. (Photo — Andy Flynn)
We're currently putting together an application for a hamlet expansion with the (Adirondack) Park Agency. That's a pretty substantial project.
Two years ago, we received a $250,000 grant from the Department of State that we've done a total facelift at our visitors bureau parking area, and we're not quite done yet. And we're going to do some more items down at our town beach, which was totally revitalized a few years back.
There's always something going on. We're working on an updated destination master plan with the businesses. We're going to be hiring an outside consultant to do a study whether or not a new hotel makes sense for Wilmington and is financially feasible. So there's a whole lot of irons in the fire.
LPN: When you say hotel, do you mean with a conference center? What are your thoughts with the study?
SUPERVISOR: I have been speaking with different people that are developers in the business. Basically, I've been becoming educated that you need X amount of rooms with construction costs and purchase price of the property to be able to turn a profit. And maybe we have been focused on something smaller that financially doesn't make sense. So we're going to hire an outside consultant to do a study on whether or not a 50-room hotel is financially viable.
We have a load of 1960s-era hotels. The ones that have reinvested I think are doing fairly well, but we still need some new development.
LPN: What's the driving force behind hamlet expansion?
SUPERVISOR: Most of the property that's in the main drag that's desirable includes very small lots. It's all occupied. The way I look at it, if you're trying to entice a developer to come in, we've got to do something different and make it easy for them.
In Lake Placid, which are great neighbors by the way, they have the name draw, the numbers. If they're looking to invest somewhere, Placid has it, plain and simple. we have to try to convince somebody that you can make money in Wilmington also. There lies a struggle. And if we say to a potential developer, in order to develop you've got to buy up four or five properties, you're immediately putting roadblocks in front of them. If you don't make it easy and enticing, they're going to go to Lake Placid. That's really what's happened over the years, and that's what's happening throughout the Adirondack Park. There is very little new development, far and few between.
There's been some positive things going on. The gas station is going to come about. We're going to have a bike shop. We've got some of the greatest mountain biking in the Adirondacks. We have the best bike fest coming up in June. That's turning into an amazing event. ... It's a qualifier for the Leadville 100, which is the most prestigious mountain bike race in the world, and ours is the only qualifier on the East Coast.
Steinhoff's was closed on yesterday. We're hopeful that the people who purchased it will work quickly to get it back open because we really need that. And it's the same group that purchased the former Mel's Diner and Green Mountain Lodge on the corner. They've made a lot of improvements, and we're hopeful that they can move forward and get these businesses back open because shuttered businesses are very negative for a community.
LPN: What are the major challenges as far as your job in Wilmington?
SUPERVISOR: Trying to get things accomplished with a very tight budget. I'm a firm believer in the tax cap. But for a small town, it's challenging to get work done. We've been studying everything that needs to be studied in Wilmington since the 1970s, and everyone says almost the same thing. You've got to create a more attractive downtown area. You've got to have shops. But you've got to get the people here first before anyone with shops is going to take advantage.
There are successful businesses. Adirondack Chocolates, formerly the Candy Man, he's done very well here in Wilmington. So it's doable.
LPN: On the Essex County level, what are the main challenges there?
SUPERVISOR: The main challenges, in my opinion, which might be somewhat controversial, there was a 13.3 percent increase in the budget last year, and it was not necessary. I think the county needs to be run like a business, and when the business is out of money, people get laid off, programs get cut back, you need to do things more efficiently. And I don't think at the county level we've gotten to that yet. I understand that people have had enough of the property taxes.
There's a lot of things going on in the North Country with ambulance coverage. Again, I've been reaching out to anybody who will listen that volunteers are going away at an alarming rate. And the only place that these small communities can go to pay EMTs to staff their ambulances is the property tax. We don't have enough of a call volume that, even if we're billing, would ever cover the cost of operating an ambulance service. And that is happening throughout the North Country. And that is a true crisis.
Back to the county, I think we need to adhere to that tax cap. I think government was put in place for public safety, and we need to focus on that. We need to take care of our seniors. A lot of these other things simply need to go away. And nobody seems to want to go through with that. There was a big divide on the county board last year over the budget. I don't think my mind is going to be changed. I've always been for the 2 percent cap. I've always thought what we're doing is wrong. And we cannot continue to run the way we have been running things because the costs are just escalating beyond belief.
To be fair, the state mandates drive the train there also, way more so than they do on the town level.
LPN: Wilmington is a resort town. What are your thoughts on increasing the occupancy tax from 3 to 5 percent?
SUPERVISOR: That's going to be another sticky challenge. There are communities in Essex County that feel they're entitled to some of that money, and they don't generate occupancy tax. Of course, when they're putting their hands in (North Elba Supervisor) Roby Politi's pocket, that's a little controversial. There are some of us, including myself, that think vacation rentals should be included in that. They're benefitting from it, and they should, and there is a lot of pushback in different areas on that. So I think it should (be increased).
I travel extensively, and there's an occupancy tax everywhere. In the city of Burlington, it's 9 percent. In Grove City, Ohio, which is a suburb of Columbus, I was there a few weeks ago, and I think it was 5 or 6 percent there. So I don't think raising it from 3 to 5 is unreasonable. I think there are a lot of things we can fund with that additional money. We need to figure out a way to fund our fish hatchery, which a DEC study shows that fishing has a 12-million-dollar impact on Essex County. I think if we can take that occupancy tax and fund that fish hatchery, it makes sense. It gets it off the property tax. That's almost 300-thousand-dollar-a-year price tag. I think we could do more shoulder season marketing with the additional funds. I think possibly we could team up with ORDA and do some joint ventures with the additional funds. And there's been a desire out there to come up with a revolving loan fund that somebody in the tourist industry could borrow from and repay. That's been kicked around in the last proposal.
At this point in time, it's been put on the shelf, and we're waiting to see what happens with Franklin County. We've been told that the governor's not going to sign any new taxes. So if Franklin County is not successful (in establishing an occupancy tax), then we're not going to move forward with it. If they are successful, then probably it's going to come back on the table and get discussed.
When I have traveled, I have never asked how much the occupancy tax was. People don't. And if you really want sticker shock, go to Montreal and spend the night because the taxes up there are unbelievable. But I never ask ahead of time before I come, "What are the taxes? What is the occupancy tax?" I don't think 5 percent is going to hurt anyone, and I think we could benefit greatly from it.
LPN: If money was not an issue and you had as much money as you could spend, what's one thing you would do to improve the town of Wilmington the most?
SUPERVISOR: I would totally revamp the face of some of these older businesses and certainly put in a bar and restaurant, a couple of them, so people had choices. Sadly, with the closing of Steinhoff's, there are nights when you can't have dinner out in Wilmington, and that's not good in a tourist community.
Part of this hamlet expansion and discussion with the APA is I don't want to buy into a conventional 15-million-dollar sewage treatment plant that's going to fail before it's paid off and end up polluting the river in the end anyway. I think there's a lot of new technology out there. I don't think that communities that haven't already made that step need to buy into that 15-million-dollar sewage treatment plant. But you have to have some type of a plan to deal with sewage because if you don't, that hampers your development. So I don't think I would build a sewage treatment plant, but I would come up with some high-tech ways (to deal with it). There are some companies that maintain that small communities can be done at a fraction of that cost and be more environmentally friendly because the technology they're using now for sewage treatment plants is 20-year-old technology. And, quite simply, it's bankrupting communities throughout the Adirondacks.
People just don't have the money to keep funding this stuff. It's out of control as far as the cost of things. Lake Placid's was 15 million dollars a few years ago. St. Armand's under the gun. There's a need of 67 million dollars for just sewage treatment in Essex County alone. And that's astronomical. ... It is going on their property tax, plain and simple. It's worded differently, but that's what it is. It's bankrupting people, and I don't know how you can continue with this runaway train.
So if I had all the money in the world, I'd do a face-lift on everything, put in a couple of bars and restaurants and come up with a high-tech sewage treatment thing that wouldn't bankrupt people.
LPN: Fill in the blank. The future of Wilmington is ...
SUPERVISOR: Going to be very bright.
I took over in 2008, and we were right at the peak of the housing market and real estate market boom, and things were really looking promising. And then the bottom fell out. Historically, we're always well behind Lake Placid in regaining ground. We're getting to the point now where it's getting better. The one thing there has been a boom in is vacation homes and vacation rentals in Wilmington. They're skyrocketing. That's a double-edged sword also because some places there are new homes going up specifically for that, which is a great product and there's a high demand. In other areas, a lot of the homes are going up for sale or being snatched up and used, so that takes away affordable housing for the locals. I'm not sure anyone knows how you fix that. I can't tell someone they can't buy a piece of property.
On the upswing, that is putting a lot of people visiting our area in this town. And the vacation rental market is unbelievable.
So I think we're heading back in the right direction again. I'm hoping the economy in the country stays stable because I think we're starting to move in a forward direction again.
We've got a brand new snowmobile trail that connects us with the outside world. You can go from the center of our town to Franklin County, Clinton County or Canada if you choose. That just opened last year. They finished cutting it on the back side of the mountain. What little snow we did have when we finally got it in March, that was extremely popular. So I think that's a positive thing.
The mountain biking is a positive thing. We've got a new bike shop coming into Wilmington. It's going to be open by Memorial Day.
So I think we've made the turn. ... We've still got some stumbling blocks. The eyesore at the old Wilson Farms gas station on the corner is one of them. It's just amazing that a multi-million-dollar corporation can leave an eyesore like that in the middle of your town and think it's OK, but that's what's happened. It's amazingly difficult to deal with because you're dealing with a corporation that's in Texas, and we've chased them and chased them and chased them for the year they've been closed with code violations. And it takes forever to get anything done.
So there's always a challenge, but there are a lot of positive things happening.
LPN: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
SUPERVISOR: Basically, I think Wilmington has anything that any person could look for in outdoor recreation. And if it's not here, it's only 10 or 15 minutes away. And we have some of the most amazing views anywhere. So that I'm very proud of. I'm very proud to be a native here. I've been to a lot of places, and this is where I'm going to live until the day they plant me under.