Only way to grow in Lake George may be up
Locals: Mixed views on tall hotels, casino
LAKE GEORGE In early May, Canada Street in Lake George is only just coming back to life after a long hibernation.
Winter is as much economic as meteorological phenomena for the eponymous resort village at Lake George’s southern tip. The summer scene of Americade, Million Dollar Beach and charging for parking on side streets all ends once the Adirondack foliage fades and the leaves drop.
Many businesses close from October to May. The 10 weeks between school dismissal in June and its resumption in September are when businesses have to thrive.
“We try to promote ourselves as a year-round resort, but we don’t do a very good job of it,” acknowledged Michael Consuelo, executive director of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The quest for a stronger year-round economy is behind discussions about whether the village should allow construction of high-rise hotels and toss its hat into the ring for consideration as a spot for a state-approved casino.
“The casino, it would bring a lot of jobs, but a lot of people want to keep [the village] family-oriented,” said a retiree who was sitting on a bench by the lake on a sunny morning last week but didn’t want to give his name. “The end of September, this is a ghost town.”
Today, the five-story Fort William Henry Resort — which provoked controversy because of its height prior to its 2003 construction — is the sole exception to a development pattern that consists mostly of aging two- or three-story motels and tourist-oriented shops and restaurants along Canada Street, the village’s four-lane main drag that is also Route 9.
But a zoning proposal backed by the Village Board would allow new buildings up to six stories in some commercial areas of the village, which has only about 1,000 year-round residents.
The proposed change is tailored to a new hotel and conference center proposed last fall on upper Canada Street — though with two fewer stories than the developer originally wanted.
A change in height rules is necessary, village officials said, because nearly every commercial lot in the village is already taken.
“In order to allow for growth, the only way to grow — and what they now call smart growth — is to go up,” Mayor Robert M. Blais said. “I just think it’s logical, and it’s the only way for the village to grow.”
At a public meeting in March, the idea of taller buildings was both praised and criticized. All Village Board members spoke in favor, and the board has voted to send its proposal to the Adirondack Park Agency for review.
Any zoning changes in the village are subject to agency review, since Lake George is inside the Adirondack Park.
APA staff met with village leaders in March to discuss changing the downtown height restrictions, but the agency hasn’t yet received a formal proposal, agency spokesman Keith McKeever said last week.
It isn’t yet clear when the APA will act. Typically, there’s a detailed staff review, followed by action at one of the monthly commissioners’ meetings.
Blais said further action by the village, including a formal public hearing on the zoning changes and a final vote, will be on hold until the APA review is done.
“Otherwise, we could be wasting our time,” he said.
Even if the zoning were changed, specific proposals for buildings more than 40 feet high would be subject to review and approval by the APA.
The drive to allow taller buildings started after area businessman Dave Kenny submitted plans last fall to build an eight-story, $15 million Marriott hotel and conference center, which would replace three buildings he bought along upper Canada Street, just south of Lake George Junior-Senior High School.
The project would include a conference center big enough for 500 people, as well as 110 guest rooms and some ground-floor retail space.
Kenny, who also owns the Marine Village Resort on Canada Street, the Inn at Erlowest north of the village, a Clarion hotel in Queensbury and other properties, has agreed to put his development plans on hold while the village reviews its height restrictions.
The Village Board hired Elan Planning and Design of Saratoga Springs to develop new height and building design guidelines. Under the plan they produced, buildings up to six stories, or 72 feet in height, would be allowed on the west side of Canada Street — though not on the east side, which is closer to the lake.
Consuelo said the Chamber of Commerce is in favor of adjusting the height limit, feeling a large hotel with a conference center would create more opportunities for year-round business, allowing more businesses to stay open through the winter.
Separately, there’s a community discussion ongoing about whether a casino would be a good idea, if state voters legalize casino gambling.
But if state voters approve gambling — in a statewide referendum that may not happen until 2014 — Lake George would likely be in competition with Saratoga Springs, since the number of casinos will be limited. State officials would decide the locations, and Saratoga County and city officials are united in lobbying for a full casino at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.
“It’s going to be a tough one. Saratoga already has the footprint, so to speak,” said Consuelo.
Here, village leaders have officially remained neutral, though the village sponsored a pro-gambling presentation in April. Many residents are ambivalent.
“I feel this community is more about enjoying the lake than bringing in these huge corporations to make money,” said Jackie Hoffman, a 26-year-old clerk at the Adirondack Winery and Tasting Room on Canada Street.
But she supports rezoning to allow larger hotels, saying they would bring more visitors in.
“I like to preserve Lake George for what it is, and with so many hotels, it’s a double-edged sword,” she said.
Doug S. Frost, who at 20 is the fourth generation among the owners of the Tom Tom Shop, said he favors both changes.
“I think it would be more on the positive side, if anything,” said Frost, whose family owns the souvenir and gift shop founded in 1960 that stays open all year. “This town needs a good change anyway.”
Blais, who said he’s neutral on gambling, is in favor of the building height change, and praised the Marriott proposal.
“It has every element to it that would be a tremendous improvement for Lake George,” he said.
Village officials have felt for years a larger conference center would draw events that would improve the off-season economy, bringing people into the community to stay, eat and shop.
“We need to start looking at May and April and October,” said Blais, who has been mayor since 1971.
Blais said many of the high-rise proposals’ critics are from outside the village, and some simply don’t want to see the resort change.
“Change, to a lot of people, is fear,” Blais said. “Lake George is going to look different.”
The Chamber of Commerce favors the change.
“We are very much in favor of growth in our village and allowing this to take place,” Consuelo said.
But the chamber is remaining neutral on whether casino gambling is a good idea for Lake George.
“We’re still in the questioning stage,” Consuelo said. “We’re like Switzerland. We’re remaining neutral.”