Jim McKenna’s vision for Lake Placid is his legacy

Jim McKenna, who retired as the president and CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism on May 31, is seen here in front of the Lake Placid Conference Center on Jan. 12, 2023, prior to the opening ceremony of the FISU Winter World University Games in the Olympic Center’s 1980 Herb Brooks Arena. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

It was the morning of Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism announced that its president and CEO, Jim McKenna, would retire at the end of April this year. Several hours later, Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn sat down with him at the Uihlein Farm in Lake Placid for an exclusive interview about promoting business and tourism in the Adirondacks for more than 40 years.

Our first question: What do you think your legacy will be?

“I haven’t thought about it that much,” he said.

We were dumbstruck. He’s done so much for Lake Placid and most of the Adirondack Park, and he hadn’t thought about his legacy. But now that he’s retired — one month later than originally expected, on May 31 — we’ve thought a lot about Jim McKenna’s legacy.

To sum it up, Lake Placid’s success in the tourism industry after the 1980 Olympic Winter Games is largely due to McKenna and his teams over the past 42 years. But they didn’t just help Lake Placid and the town of North Elba. Their work has positively impacted the lives of Adirondackers all over Essex and Hamilton counties and southern Franklin County, providing a stable and growing economic base so year-round residents can live, work and play here … in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

McKenna began his tourism promotion career on Feb. 9, 1982, when the North Elba Town Board hired him as “business solicitor” for the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce at an annual salary of $12,500. Originally, he was supposed to get commissions for any group business he brought to the community in excess of $300,000. However, he said he never took a commission; instead, he put that money back into the organization to help grow it. Later that year, he was known as the chamber’s “convention director.”

Over the next four decades, McKenna grew the operation to what we know it today — as the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism/Lake Placid CVB, a 501c6 not-for-profit corporation. ROOST is the destination marketing and management organization for Essex and Hamilton counties and the Tri-Lakes communities of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

In November, McKenna explained that he was “comfortable” leaving ROOST at this time.

“It’s got staff that are committed, understand their positions, are accountable and are accomplishing a lot more than people see just in one community,” he said. “I think maybe that’s the thing that sticks out most in my mind. … We started with two people in 1982 with a $35,000 budget from the town of North Elba, and it evolved over time to be totally a visitor-funded organization with a staff of about 30 people.”

McKenna had bigger aspirations for this region than many Adirondack residents. He saw the work the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee did to bring the Winter Olympics back to this village in 1980; those boosters were the ones who worked for decades to make sure the Olympics returned. They never gave up. Their work ethic and commitment to this community must have rubbed off on him because he embodies that can-do spirit that brought the Olympics to Lake Placid in the first place — when 1920s boosters such as Godfrey Dewey, Henry Uihlein II and North Elba Supervisor Willis Wells laid the groundwork for tourism promotion and brought the III Olympic Winter Games here in 1932.

As the leading members of the LPOOC began passing away, the Olympic torch was passed to McKenna and several others, and they ran with it. In recent years, he and village mayors have regularly traveled to Europe to attend World Union of Olympic Cities summits, representing Lake Placid on the world stage.

After the 1980 games, Lake Placid had to re-define itself. Many were asking, “Where do we go from here?” The first step was to get rid of the debt from those games, which the state of New York successfully did in 1981 when the state Legislature created the Olympic Regional Development Authority to operate the Olympic venues. That was a huge boost to the local economy and remains so today.

But boosters in the 1980s had a third Olympics in mind. They created the 2000 Club with a goal to bring the Olympics back to Lake Placid by the year 2000. This was before the winter and summer games were staggered by two years instead of both being held the same year; the 1994 winter games were held in Lillehammer, Norway, just two years after they were held in Albertville, France.

McKenna was first elected chairman of the 2000 Club in November 1982 and was one of the original founders.

“We think that the year 2000 is the earliest we could expect to have them here again, but we want to start arranging things as soon as possible,” McKenna told the News before the club’s first meeting in 1982.

Yet a third Winter Olympics in New York state hasn’t happened. First of all, Lake Placid — once the only community in the United States to have bobsled and luge tracks — now shares the Olympic stage with Salt Lake City, Utah, which hosted the games in 2002 and is the front runner to host the games again in 2034. Secondly, the 1980 Winter Olympics marked the end of the small-town games. Most host cities are just that — cities — and the games are now held with venues over a bigger region, not in just one community. If the Olympics ever returned to Lake Placid, it would have to be in partnership with metropolitan communities, such as New York City, to host the opening and closing ceremonies and arena events. The Adirondack Park simply can’t handle the larger crowds of the modern Winter Olympics.

Yet, even faced with this reality, McKenna never gave up on the Olympic idea. But as we learned from him in 2015, bidding for the Olympics is not just about hosting the games; a bid can create opportunities to modernize sports venues, add housing for residents and improve other aspects of life in local communities. The end goal was not just another Olympics; it was about economic development and sustainability.

“If we can position ourselves for the future games, we’re positioning our region for economic growth, regardless,” McKenna told the News in 2015. “Where we lack is things like transportation linkages to the North Country, and we have to have transportation linkages to be a viable candidate, so we have to start addressing that. We have to start addressing our hospitality infrastructure, not only in Placid but in places like Wilmington and Tupper Lake and the Thousand Islands. You need 30,000 rooms to host the Olympic Games. We have 2,000 in Essex County.”

In 2023, the region capitalized on this strategy when Lake Placid, Wilmington, North Creek and Saranac Lake hosted the FISU Winter World University Games. McKenna was the chairman of the Adirondack Sports Council, which was the organizing committee for those games. And now we have some new housing — with more on the way — and modernized ORDA venues. Those sports facility investments are paying off with more World Cup competitions coming to town.

Under the leadership of McKenna and Adirondack Foundation Executive Director Cali Brooks, in late 2015, the North Country Regional Economic Development Council — of which he is currently a co-chair and she is still a member — had three proposals to get millions of dollars from New York’s Upstate Revitalization Initiative.

On the NCREDC’s list of 2015 priority projects, they had a $6 million plan to create the Adirondack/Thousand Islands Sports and Events Commission to use a Winter Olympic bid for the 2026 or 2030 Games (proposal 1) in order to create sustainable Olympic venues (proposal 2) and a Global Center for Sports Excellence (proposal 3). The cost of the commission would have been split: $4.5 million coming from public URI funds and $1.5 million from private investment.

If funded, the commission would have hired a consulting firm to develop and implement a strategy to bid on a future Olympic Winter Games; develop a plan to use Lake Placid’s sporting facilities and venues “to strengthen the regional and state economy and help position the region for an Olympic bid”; and analyze and assess existing facilities and institutions and form a pathway to develop a sustainable Global Center of Sports Excellence in Lake Placid.

The URI money never came to Lake Placid, but these proposals, for the most part, came to fruition within eight years. Eventually, the Adirondack North Country Sports Council was created and successfully bid for and was awarded the 2023 FISU games. Those games led to more than $500 million in state investment in the regional sports facilities, which prompted development of affordable housing projects for residents. Moreover, ORDA submitted a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympic sliding sports, as International Olympic Committee officials weren’t confident that the Milano Cortina Organising Committee would be able to built a track for bobsled, skeleton and luge in time.

It’s McKenna’s vision for a better Adirondacks — for its residents as well as its visitors — that we see as his legacy.

Over the past 42 years, we can safely say that life continues to improve here for the locals. It wasn’t all McKenna’s doing; obviously, there were many partners in the public and private sectors, competent teams at the chamber of commerce, CVB and ROOST and ORDA’s ongoing commitment to keep the 1980 venues viable for economic development.

Yet McKenna and his ROOST team can be proud of notable projects such as Lake Placid’s Destination Management Plan; keeping residents and visitors informed and safe during the coronavirus pandemic; its partnerships with organizations, such as the Lake Placid/North Elba Community Development Commission to create and host the annual Lake Placid Community Day; and the Essex County occupancy tax, which was initially 3% to help with tourism promotion and is now 5% to additionally help local communities. That extra 2%, for example, allowed the town of North Elba to create its Local Enhancement and Advancement Fund, which has pumped millions of dollars into the town for projects that directly affect residents.

“The vision was, ‘What could we do to make sure that this is a sustainable, long-term economy and then how do we get there?'” McKenna told the News last November. “Piece by piece, we’ve gotten to have some influence on that.”

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