By Dan Ladue | Photos supplied
Lake Placid is a place of American legend. Two-time host to the Winter Olympics. Sonia Henie, 1932. “Miracle on Ice,” 1980. It is also the only venue in the United States to host the International University Sports Federation (FISU) games twice in its 70-year history — first in 1972, and again in 2023.
A Housing Crisis
The Adirondack region, and Lake Placid in particular, is a highly desirable place to live. It’s all about lifestyle. Four seasons. Clean, fresh air. Uncrowded byways. Scenery at every turn. But as attractive a place as the region is, the Adirondacks have seen negative net migration for years, a fact that COVID exacerbated. Real estate prices are high, and incomes are well below the state average. The two primary sources of employment in the region are office and administrative staff, and sales, food preparation and serving. These jobs are also the least paid professions.
Currently, there are more jobs than there are people willing to take them. Almost every business in Lake Placid is functioning with a 30-40% decrease in employees. A recent survey of employers found that 78% of them expressed the fact that it was difficult to hold on to employees because of the limited supply of reasonably priced real estate. The income gap between salary and rent is simply too great, and many people turn down jobs because they cannot afford to live in the area.
These are not the only jobs affected. Teachers, social workers, plumbers, electricians…all find that living the Adirondack dream is impossible unless their income allows them to live in the area.
Construction of new homes has stalled and inventory is limited. What is available is often beyond the reach of the average home buyer. Adding to the problem, is a lack of affordable rental housing, and a region saturated with seasonal homes. How to live and work in the region is problematic, especially for a vital year-round work force.
One of the communities most affected by this is Lake Placid. This is not a new problem. Around 2017, former New York State Senator Betty Little, who then represented Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Warren and Washington counties, called together a meeting of leadership to discuss and address development and housing issues in the North Country. Involved were the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA), and hospitality venues in the region. Also brought in was the Regen Development Corporation, a niche, Westchester based firm, that specializes in building housing for workers with moderate income.
According to Larry Regen, the CEO of Regen Development Corporation, the collective mission of ORDA and the hospitality industry in the prime tourist regions of the North Country was “to provide permanent, affordable, newly built, green-energy built units for a work force that was making $15.00 – $22.00 an hour, and often driving 60-80 miles one way to work.”
Because this was a community-driven project that would benefit most employers in the Saranac Lake/Lake Placid area, there was great local support. The Lussi family, long-time residents of Lake Placid, and owner of the Crowne Plaza Resort, donated a 3.17-acre parcel at 120 Wesvalley Road, on the back side of the village of Lake Placid. (Gus Lussi, the patriarch of the family, brought summer figure skating to Lake Placid after the 1932 Olympics, and later coached such figure skating gold-medal Olympians as Dick Button, Dorothy Hamel and John Curry.)
The Regen family worked closely with ORDA, local hotels and planning boards to develop the project for the purpose of providing top quality, energy efficient housing for a work force unable to compete with inflated real estate prices in a popular tourist destination. The town of North Elba was supportive, passing a tax abatement for the project which allowed rents to remain affordable for workforce residents.
That the construction of McKenzie Overlook took place at the same time as ORDA and the Adirondack Ski Council (ADKSC) were organizing the 2023 Winter FISU World University Games, was a coincidental bonus. Not only were the Games a catalyst to fill a housing need in the community, but the catalyst to finish construction and interior work in time for the apartments to be used while the FISU games were unfolding, then later used for workforce housing.
Construction of the multi-unit project was planned around allowing FISU staff members and organizers a place to stay before, during and after the games which took place from January 12-22, 2023. Everything was in working order when the first staffer moved in shortly after New Year’s Day.
By mid-January, the world gathered in Lake Placid. More than 1,400 young collegiate athletes from 46 nations filled hotels, and performed in one of the largest and most prestigious multi-sport events in the world.
By the end of January, the last FISU staff members had vacated McKenzie Overlook. Regen Development used February to make repairs, finalize any undone work, and do a final walk through.
Currently, demand for the property outweighs supply. All 60 apartments are rented, and were ready for the first permanent residents to move on March 1, 2023. Nine units are designed for people with mobility, hearing or vision issues. Fifteen, two-bedroom apartments are available for families.
Rent is reasonable and based on one’s salary and a percentage of the county’s median income. A strict application process determines if the applicant qualifies for affordable housing. Prices range from $441 a month for a one-bedroom apartment for households with an income of less than $21,480, to $937 for families with a gross income of $61,360. All of the apartments are owned and managed by the Regen Development Corporation, but renting is overseen by a third party.
As successful as this project is, it barely meets the demand for workforce housing.
In 2020, a Community Housing Needs Assessment was undertaken in the town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid. According to Camoin Associates 301, the assessment included “a comprehensive analysis of the existing housing supply, analysis of an employer housing survey, a quantitative workforce housing unit needs analysis, and strategies to address critical housing issues.” The study determined that 1,535 workers were in need of affordable housing, and that 1,534 new homes were needed just to meet current demand.
The report also determined that “housing affordability has been a long-term issue in the community with local homes increasingly falling out of the price range of those that live and work in the area.” Because Lake Placid is a popular vacation and second-home destination, the workforce has eroded because it cannot afford to live in the area. This in turn constrains future economic growth.
“The need for housing goes far beyond the issue of housing. Providing a home for workers is important to the economic vitality of communities. Workers can live close to their jobs and participate in community organizations, volunteer, and be an active member of society. Shorter commutes allow workers to spend more time with their families while the community benefits from having employees such as school teachers, nurses, and business owners living locally and engaged in the community.
A healthy mix of housing options—including market-rate and affordable, owner-occupied and rental, single-family and multifamily—targeted to households across the age spectrum, ensure opportunities for all individuals to improve their economic situation and contribute to their communities.
Local businesses benefit from having a larger customer base of year-round residents, and from an improved ability to attract and retain workers. All of these impacts will compound, creating a more vibrant culture and a stronger sense of place that is attractive both to current and potential residents.”
A Promising Tomorrow
According to Art Devlin, Jr., the current mayor of Lake Placid, himself a member of an Olympic family (his father, Art Devlin, Sr., participated in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics), the village has risen to the occasion. Currently, a number of older motels have been converted to housing, meeting a much-needed demand. The old Howard Johnson’s motel has been razed, and a portion of the new construction will include housing units.
Still early in the planning stages is a project where the Cell Science Research Center once stood. Planned are 240 units which will add a healthy selection of new homes and condominiums for sale and for rent. The primary target will be housing for the workforce so necessary to the area.
The future looks promising for the Lake Placid region. Completion of the McKenzie Overlook project is a fitting tribute to the 2023 FISU games. Conversion of older properties is homage to the long line of families who have owned hotel/motel complexes in the village, and the support of the larger community is the lasting legacy of the fine leadership in the North Country. There really is magic in Lake Placid.
120 Wesvalley Road
Lake Placid, NY 12946