SUPERVISOR SPOTLIGHT: Meet Joe Pete Wilson, Keene supervisor
Joe Pete Wilson Jr. has one hard and fast rule for any career move he makes: He’ll only go where there’s good skiing, hiking and climbing.
That’s how he ended up working in Vermont and Salt Lake City, Utah, and that’s how he connected back to his roots in Keene, where his love for all things outdoors began. Less than 10 years after his return to Keene in 2008, his current career as town supervisor was born.
Wilson grew up in Lake Placid and graduated from the Lake Placid High School in 1982, but he spent summers working for his dad and namesake at the Keene family business that started during the World War II era: a maple sugaring operation and the Bark Eater Inn.
Wilson said he inherited his dad’s legacy as an outdoorsman. Joe Pete Wilson Sr. competed as a cross-country skier during the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley, California, and Wilson said he was a lifelong skier and bobsledder into his 60s.
“He had a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that in the 1970s, his dad tried to reclaim the ski trails from the 1932 Winter Olympics that ran from the Lake Placid Club to Keene and back. In turn, he taught Wilson how to be a trailblazer and how to read the forest around him. Wilson said his father showed him how to look at a piece of forest and figure out what it was used for 100 years ago.
Wilson has witnessed history around him since he was a kid. Back then, he said Keene and Lake Placid were different towns than they are today. He sees the dividing line as the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the area drew visitors and attention from across the globe. Now, he said everything’s bigger: hotels, events, demand for outdoor recreation and the area’s tourist presence. Much of Wilson’s focus as supervisor continues to revolve around understanding the impacts of those increasing demands and how they affect the town of Keene.
A volunteer town
Wilson is entering his second four-year term and sixth year as Keene’s town supervisor after being reelected for the third time last November, and he said he sees his next term as a continuation of the work he’s done for the last five years. His love for the outdoors has motivated him to focus on managing hiker traffic from the very beginning, and he has a vested interest in maintaining the volunteer presence for the Keene Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services. He said Keene’s EMS team is the last one in Essex County that’s entirely run by volunteers.
The town also approved its new strategic plan last year, and it focuses on five town priorities: achievable housing, health care and seniors, preschool and child care, short-term rentals, and hiker parking and recreational infrastructure. Wilson said the coronavirus pandemic has intensified the need to deal with those issues as the town began to experience a rise in hiker traffic and people moving upstate from urban areas. The town has moved through a few different phases with the plan, including surveying town residents to form the plan’s focus and creating working groups for each of the plan’s anchors.
Wilson said one of the things he enjoys about being supervisor in Keene is the level of involvement from residents. While some local governments hire outside help to create their strategic plans, Keene’s plan has been a homegrown effort from start to present. He said the plan capitalizes on one of the town’s main strengths: having engaged, active community members who want to bring their expertise to volunteering. The plan was created by the town board with volunteers, and each of the committees related to the plan are volunteer-run. Through all of these efforts, Wilson said the town has brought the text of the strategic plan into a living reality.
Housing and short-term rentals
Like much of the Tri-Lakes area, Keene is crunched for affordable and resident housing.
Wilson said that the presence of short-term rentals ties into the town’s housing shifts, especially as the tourist presence grows. He said short-term rentals have affected the availability of long-term rentals for residents, and they’ve driven up the cost of new home sales. That’s pushed some neighborhoods, especially around Keene Valley, from areas with affordable family housing to short-term rental hubs. Last year, he said around 13% of the town’s housing units were dedicated to short-term rentals.
To address these issues, Wilson said the strategic plan will involve understanding how many short-term rentals there are in the town, where they are and how they’re being used. He doesn’t want to take away income from full-time residents who are renting a portion of their homes out for profit, but the town is looking at what nearby municipalities like Lake Placid and North Elba have done to regulate the rentals. He said Keene’s short-term rental working group is presenting its ideas to the town board on Jan. 25.
Wilson said there are some local property owners who are dedicated to creating “socially conscious” housing that would serve residents. One property owner is in the process of converting a building across from the town hall into long-term rental apartments. But Wilson said creating those housing units is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving housing in Keene.
“I don’t think we can build our way out of the housing crunch,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of different strategies: regulating short-term rentals, providing quality child care, you know, having a more walkable recreation community — all these things tie together to really keep our town a vibrant place, and so dealing with the impact of short-term rentals is one piece of that.”
An age-friendly community
Working groups for child care and aging populations in the town have hit some big milestones in the last year.
Little Peaks, the town’s non-profit child care and pre-k center that’s been operating out of Keene’s community center, will be expanding its efforts this fall. With the help of the Housing Assistance Program of Essex County and private donations, the center was able to secure the construction of a new building that will open for the 2022-23 school year.
Wilson said the demand for child care in the town has risen since Little Peaks opened around 20 years ago, and the new facility will allow for longer hours that correspond with parents’ work days and have a greater capacity for additional students.
“It’s really going to be a robust program that provides real high quality child care, after school care,” he said, “so that parents can work and their kids can have a good, safe, healthy, fun place to be.”
Working groups have also been looking out for the town’s seniors as Keene residents’ median age keeps “creeping up there.” The town is now part of the American Association of Retired Persons’ network of Age-Friendly States and Communities.
He said the working group identified early on the need to make recreation trails more accessible, which has led to a resurfaced walking trail at Marcy Field and a new parking lot at the Marcy Field oval. Wilson said the working group is taking strides to make the town a spot where people can “age in place.”
Last year’s hiking season was an “anomaly,” according to Wilson. He said hiker traffic was down from previous years, but visitor traffic remained high — he noted that around 1,400 to 1,900 people attended each farmers market in the town over the summer.
Wilson said one hallmark of last year’s hiking season was that the town only had to tow one car, since the crush of parking experienced in previous years wasn’t there. The town’s hiker shuttle and the new county shuttle from Marcy Field didn’t get much traffic, either. Wilson has had some preliminary meetings with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the county to hash out the 2021 hiking season and plan for this year, but he said it’s hard to make predictions for what’s to come after such a sparse hiking season.
Wilson is also looking at major recreation events like the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon and how they affect Keene. He said he’d like to see a greater effort from the Ironman organization to mitigate the negative effects of the training season leading up to race day, like informing athletes and coaches where they can find a bathroom so they don’t use Keene’s waters or residents’ lawns as toilets.
Wilson wants the event to stay because it brings a lot of name recognition to the town, and he’s had good experiences working with the organization to create a space on Route 9N for athletes to rest and recover. The problem is getting the word out so athletes know it’s there, he said.
As part of his supervisor work, Wilson serves on the Essex County Board of Supervisors. Each supervisor serves on committees for the county, and Wilson said he’s especially excited about the two committees he chairs because the work he does with them spills over into the town.
One of those is the county’s solid waste committee.
Wilson understands that may not sound too exciting, but he said solid waste management is critical for Keene. It’s getting more expensive to recycle as more things require recycling, and he said the market for those materials is low right now. That means small towns like Keene aren’t generating enough revenue to cover the cost of recycling.
“It’s something that the town of Keene spends a tremendous amount of money on every year, and we’re not going to be able to continue to just throw money at the problem,” he said. “We have to develop better systems, be more efficient and anticipate what’s coming down the road.”
Wilson also chairs the county’s recruitment and retention committee, which looks at recruiting and filling open positions at the county level. He said around 10% of county jobs are open, and that it’s hard to fill those positions because the county experiences the same needs as the town: housing and childcare are difficult to come by. Wilson said there’s no easy fix for the problem, and finding solutions will take coordination, like what the town is doing with HAPEC and Little Peaks. In that way, he said, the committee fits into what he’s seeing happen in Keene.
Wilson worked in education for years before he started as supervisor, and he served on Keene’s board of education. But once he started getting interested in local government and got the job as supervisor, Wilson said there’s little time for any other work. He’s been wearing a lot of hats lately, too. He’s serving as the town’s interim animal control officer while the board attempts to fill the position, and he was busy impounding a dog on Sunday after police arrested a couple of people who had a dog with them. Last Friday and Saturday, he was posted at the town’s water plant after a propane leak was found there.
“It doesn’t leave a lot of time to pick up an outside career,” he said.
He called his work as supervisor a “balancing act,” because not everything he wants to prioritize makes the top of the list all the time. That’s one of the major things he’s learned in his years as supervisor — it takes time to get things done when you’re working in the framework of an entire town of people.