Inside the Capitol: The Governor’s Next Adirondack Challenge

It was Monday. Vacation was over.

After pancakes with maple syrup at Chrissy’s Diner in Indian Lake, I walked outside to wait for my husband to unlock the car. We were headed south to Albany. I was depressed.

An older man with a cell phone to his ear was standing by the door of the restaurant. He said, “I can tell you’re not from around here.”

Of course you can. It’s 8 a.m. I’m sweating through my foundation makeup. I look like my serotonin reuptake inhibitor is no longer doing the trick.

“How so?” I said with a sigh.

“Nobody around here locks their doors.”

Paradise found.

If you sit in your car at the intersection of NY-28 and NY-30, you’ll see most of Indian Lake: the library, Stewart’s Shop, the outfitter, the bar, the other bar.

Indian Lake sits in Hamilton County: over 1,800 square miles of rivers, lakes and mountains without a single traffic light. It’s so vast that 52 Manhattans could squeeze into the county’s borders. To give you a sense of how remote it is, the region just got cell service. And no, it didn’t extend to our B&B.

This summer my husband, Bill, and I spent five days and four nights in Indian Lake. I had only slept in the Adirondacks one other time since I moved to Albany in 1991. That night public policy wasn’t at the top of my mind; this time it was.

The region’s challenges were obvious.

“For Sale” signs hung here and there on buildings populating the main intersection in town. The structures were in various states of dilapidation. Once upon a time they could have been retail shops.

With 130,000 full-time residents and over 10 million visitors each year, the Adirondack Park is rich in lakes, forests, fish, space, oxygen, water, solitude— everything that counts. But it’s poor in services that Americans take for granted, like the Internet and grocery stores. Indian Lake hasn’t had a grocery in three years, ever since the IGA shut down.

Bill and I were on vacation, so the absence of a Price Chopper only added to the feeling of “being away.” It was fun to pretend (for four days) that we were visiting an exotic locale with beautiful vistas but no soy milk. My husband joked that we had unwittingly stumbled into a Star Trek episode about alternate realities, and in this reality, lactose intolerance had been eradicated.

There was one moment that made us wonder about living in Indian Lake full-time. After a stormy night, a power outage prevented us from buying gas with a credit card. If we hadn’t had cash we would have spent the day exploring the majesty of that gas station.

Like other communities in the park, Indian Lake is losing population, according to town historian William Zulla. Young people move away after high school now, but Zulla recollects when things were bustling. In 1970, he says, about 400 students graduated from Indian Lake Central School. This year there were just over 20. Next year the graduating class is expected to include just eight students.

The town’s tax revenues reflect population loss, as do the ubiquitous “For Sale” signs: Town Assessor Meade Hutchins estimates there are over 100,000 acres of state park land in the Town of Indian Lake. The state is assessed $14 per thousand acres of assessed value. Some quick arithmetic indicates that Indian Lake’s primary asset—the park—generates a third of the town’s annual revenue.

Hutchins and Zulla know what’s at stake: Unless Indian Lake gets an infusion of economic plasma, it’s going to die.

But there is hope: pockets of potential that populate the region like glacial erratics—atypical boulders stranded by a glacier, which I learned about at the Adirondack Museum.

Stakeholders in the park who had been at odds for decades have started listening to one another. Ironically, the long-standing animosities that prevented progress were bested by technology: the promise of universal Internet access. For once environmentalists and economic developers wanted to same thing.

“Broadband was really one of the first issues we identified where there was almost 100 percent commitment that that was a ‘have to have’ item for the Adirondacks,” Hamilton County Supervisor Bill Farber said.

Some of the park still isn’t wired. Regardless, Farber says the broadband initiative is considered the first success of an influential coalition called the Common Ground Alliance.

“The Common Ground Alliance really humanized the conversation,” he said. “It brought it to a level where people understood that other people had other viewpoints, and where the commonalities of those viewpoints were.”

When asked to characterize how stakeholders in the park interacted before the creation of the Common Ground Alliance, Farber joked, “Are you at all familiar with Washington politics?”

Ross Whaley, a former Adirondack Park Agency chairman, once famously observed that Adirondackers would rather fight than win.

The seventh anniversary of the Common Ground Alliance’s first meeting took place in July. CGA is now considered the premier umbrella group for building consensus around the park’s future. Environmentalists, economic developers, year-round residents, summertime visitors, hunters, conservationists, snowmobilers, mountain climbers, professors and technicians have all contributed to the conversation.

According to Farber, two factors contributed to the Alliance’s success. First, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bottom-up approach to economic development.

“This kind of economic development, where you figure out region by region what makes sense … is probably the first time in the state’s history that … we’ve really had a chance to figure out projects that fit Hamilton County,” he said.

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council has won almost $200 million via the governor’s economic development competition.

The money is not specific to the Adirondack Park. But the projects the money funds are helping communities within the park. These include the Wild Walk at the Wild Center; a biofuel project at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake; a series of downtown revitalization efforts; updated county 911 systems with built-in redundancies; a broadband “slick network solutions” project in Long Lake; and two Frontier projects that are expected to serve 80 percent of Hamilton County residents with broadband.

Farber describes these as “big projects, really important to the communities, not only from an economic development standpoint but from a community sustainability standpoint. All good stuff.”

The other factor contributing to the success of the Common Ground Alliance is something I find hard to name. Kismet? Luck? Serendipity?

Here’s the story:

Two longtime Adirondack residents who happened to be Internet entrepreneurs offered to help CGA pro bono. Strategy consultants Dave Mason and Jim Herman earned their stripes in Boston in the mid-’80s at the forefront of innovation around the World Wide Web. Years later, after moving to Keene, N.Y., the duo became frustrated by the infighting around policy issues and the resulting stagnation that prevented park residents from successfully addressing problems.

So they approached the Common Ground Alliance with an offer the group couldn’t refuse.

Mason and Herman said they would design and launch a project “to stimulate new, creative thinking” about the challenges and opportunities ahead and start a new conversation among a broad set of people that care about the park.

They would use a “scenario modeling approach” they had originally developed for corporations like AT&T to help communities “reimagine” the park. For free.

CGA accepted the offer.

Over a period of months Mason and Herman tirelessly solicited input from individuals and groups as varied as the DEC, the Adirondack Council, the Adirondack Park Agency, economic developers, town and county supervisors, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, and many others. Eventually they created six distinct visions of the park’s future. These “scenarios” were labeled “Wild Park”; “Usable Park”; “The Sustainable Life”; “Adirondack County”; “Post–‘Big Government’ Solutions”; and “The Adirondack State Forest.”

By the end of the process 95 percent of stakeholders agreed that the “Sustainable Life” scenario was the best option for the park.

Finally, Adirondack Park residents had a unified vision.

At the most recent meeting of the Common Ground Alliance, Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, noted that things had changed for the better.

“Both sides have taken steps toward each other,” he said.

Bill Farber agreed. “It’s something I couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago,” he said.

Dave Mason, who makes up one half of the strategy team, said he was shocked by the initial agreement among stakeholders, but not by the state’s new investments in park resources.

“Politics is well set up to help those who are aligned,” Mason said. “It is not set up to help those who are in disagreement.”

Not all disagreement is relegated to the past. Fierce arguments continue over how to classify 69,000 acres of land formerly owned by the Finch paper company that the state is in the process of purchasing from the Nature Conservancy.

During the recent Adirondack Challenge weekend, some park residents couldn’t agree whether the governor was a friend for using his political capital to promote Adirondack tourism, or a foe for curtailing gun rights.

Hamilton County’s Bill Farber seems convinced that the governor is doing the right thing. He just needs to continue doing it. The Adirondacks needs more of everything—jobs, sustainable tourism, population, retail outlets, services, broadband.

Saving the Adirondacks is a marathon, not a sprint.

The morning after the governor’s white-water rafting challenge, my feet were killing me.

Coincidentally, it was the same day we were heading back to Albany.

Of all the body parts white-water rafting could tax, why my feet?

My husband, a science teacher, suggested I was a victim of the primitive hindbrain, which prompted a prehensile clinging-of-toes-to-raft response generated by a natural fear of falling out.

I think I just wanted to stay.