ON THE SCENE: Newcomers saving local businesses

Devlin and Britta Hennessy and their two young boys (Photo provided)

For 37 years, Cathy and Wayne Johnston had success as owners and managers of the iconic Ruthie’s Run in Lake Placid. While doing so, they created jobs, supported a wide range of initiatives as part of the Lake Placid Business Association, and provided locals, seasonal residents and visitors a great place to shop. Ruthie’s Run is closing largely because the Johnstons haven’t been able to find someone to take the business, a challenge that’s being replicated throughout the North Country as more and more business owners are getting ready to retire.

Empty businesses are hitting the region’s economy hard, made worse with the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The more significant problem is the continued decline of young families and single adults who have decided to move to urban areas. Recognizing this trend and the growing impact, the Adirondack North Country Association launched the North Country Center for Businesses in Transition. This initiative brings together business owners, potential buyers and business and finance leaders throughout the region eager to encourage new ownership.

All these players and more participated in the center’s virtual conference, “Small Communities. Big Opportunities: Own a North Country Business,” held Feb. 24 to 27. One highlight was a panel discussion with people that either took over an existing business or moved to the North Country and started their own.

For the most part, those who took over or started a new business came from the New York metro region. They ranged from a person with a few nickels in his pocket to others who left successful jobs. The presenters also included people connected to the area, such as having been a seasonal resident or grew up here, to others who hadn’t been here before. They all shared a desire to exchange the chaos, expense and stress of urban life for a region where they might have an improved quality of life.

“I’m originally from the South Bronx,” said Felipe Brandel of Exclusively Adirondack. “Every part of my life’s been a struggle. I came up here in 2011 on a scholarship to Paul Smith’s College, which pretty much gave me a full ride. My main objective was to get out of New York City, a habitat that was burning me up. I stuck around because I saw employment opportunities coupled with a lower cost of living.”

Emilie Cardinaux, designer/founder of The Golden Cleat in Clayton (Photo provided)

Emilie Cardinaux, designer/founder of The Golden Cleat in Clayton, was a fifth-generation summer resident of the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River. In New York, Cardinaux had a flourishing career in music and television and making jewelry on the side. Her TV show wrapped at the same time her apartment building was sold. Cardinaux had a choice: Follow the film/TV industry to California or not. She chose the latter, deciding to see if she could turn a passion for making jewelry into a career, launching it in Clayton, where the cost of living was far less than the city.

“New York City was so expensive, and my apartment was about the size of my closet in Clayton,” said Cardinaux. “I’m happy to call Clayton my full-time home. We have an incredible quality of life in the North Country.”

By contrast, Julian Mangano, co-owner of Della Terra — of the Earth for the Soul farm, came to the North Country from northeast Ohio by way of New York City, where he lived for six years. While he found a great management job in the city, the daily commute finally became too stressful. He decided that he wanted to create a self-sustainable life and that Lewis County, where there are probably more cows than people, would be the perfect place to start a new career as an organic farmer.

Britta Hennessy, another fifth-generation seasonal resident, and her husband decided to leave their successful careers to take over an old lodge that had seen better days on Fourth Lake. The cost and stress of moving to the suburbs as a place to raise a family seemed like a mad proposition. So, to the Adirondacks they came throwing themselves into the new experience of renovating and operating a hotel that served meals.

“We had mental breakdowns evaluating what our life would have been like commuting every day making tons of money that would just go out the window as maintaining a life would have been so expensive,” said Britta.

The transition for all of them was not easy, but they were amazed and gratified by the number of people who would help them, none more than those considered competitors in an urban setting.

Kevin Brady said there are many opportunities in the Adirondacks that may not be in the field you left behind. He feels people have way more skills than they realize; tapping into those skills will expand opportunities. The key is a willingness to try new things. Several urged getting involved in community life by volunteering and serving on boards to build a network and community support.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the North Country,” said Brady, a returned Saranac Lake native who now leads Long Run Wealth Advisors in Lake Placid. “Speak to local business owners. Most, if they are not super busy, will give you the time. Ask them what they see as the challenges and opportunities.”

Devlin Hennessy said a benefit of becoming involved in community life is that when opportunities pop up, you’re among the first to know and that people will work together to help you.

“In our old life, people would see our best friends as our competition in the dog-eats-dog world we left behind. In reality, here they become your best resource and person to go to for help. It’s nice to have that sense of community. Everyone here is to help each other out.”

“If I needed a shop vac and a Lowe’s hours away, I can post my need on Facebook and within five minutes have three brought to us,” said Britta Hennessey. “Your success is so reliant on your ability to immerse yourself in the community and town you’re in.” She went on to say your willingness to help others opens the door to people helping you. It’s a lifestyle choice, but if you’re willing to embrace and be embraced by a community, the North Country is a great place to start or take over a business.

Cardinaux suggested checking out communities in the off-season as a way of finding out what’s your best fit for the kind of work and lifestyle you wish to pursue, as being engaged in a community year-round is vital.

Felipe Brandel said many people are afraid to fail. He feels it’s critical to view every setback as an opportunity to learn new skills and stay focused on ultimate success. Like others, he feels the key is the willingness to be as social as possible, talking with as many people as possible, letting them know who you are, and asking how you can help them.

“You’ll be surprised by the number of people who are willing to help you,” said Brandel.

If you want to learn more about starting or taking over a business in the North Country, contact ANCA at https://www.adirondack.org/. Their staff is ready to help.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)