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How Lake Placid Saved Itself

Editor's note: This article is the first in a series called Home-grown Heroes. These occasional features profile citizens who have made a difference in their communities. Their actions, experience and wisdom show us the way.

Lake Placid

Lake Placid

Just Call Him David

One problem attractive small towns face is their very attractiveness. What draws visitors and new citizens and makes for community pride often interests developers wanting to develop. Not that all development is bad. We all need places to live, shop, recreate and eat. Many new projects start with a plan to build to the scale and character of a town, fit in with zoning regulations and are welcomed by the community.

Then there are the other developments. The big, the bad, the ugly—where profit can trump preservation of small town character.

So it was with Lake Placid, New York, in 2006

Incorporated as a village in 1900, this lovely little Adirondacks community is built around the peaceful beauty of Mirror Lake. Best known as the site for the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, the town's 2600 or so residents treasure their town's heritage, character and lake views. The Swiss-flavored Main Street is filled with unique, independent shops and eateries. It's a popular place with locals and visitors alike. The town persona was long established and seemingly secure.

But all that was about to change

A hospitality corporation purchased the property where a low-rise, lakeside motel had stood. Their plans were to erect a condo project on the site. Looming over one end of Main Street, the proposed condo development had the potential to overwhelm the 1920's and 1930's intimacy of the vibrant Main Street shopping district.

Enter David, also known as Rob Grant

When Rob Grant and wife, Pat Grant, saw the project blueprints, their hearts sank. Rob said, “We were shocked when we got the first glimpse of the blueprints and saw how big it was.” The proposed project was “a huge and ugly structure that would block the view of Mirror Lake.” And, according to Rob, “the monster project also violated height, set-back and watershed regulations.”

What the developers didn't know, however, was that Lake Placid had its very own David ready to do battle with the corporate Goliath. Rob was well-equipped for the skirmish. With a background in Madison Avenue advertising—he had fled New York City in the 1980's to live in the special place that is Lake Placid—and a web whiz, Rob knew both how to shape public opinion and to rally the troops.

Rob also knew the weapons likely to be employed by a Goliath—the promises of jobs, a boost to Main Street businesses; the large numbers of future visitors who would soon arrive ready to spend their dollars. But Rob also knew the truth behind these promises. He'd seen it happen before in other places.

Large resorts often deliver the opposite of their promises—the jobs created are mostly minimum wage, new condos are often second homes. Second home owners aren't there year-round to become part of the community fabric and don't support the Main Street businesses throughout the year as the local residents do.

But what was most worrisome to Lake Placid citizens was that the condo development would change the cherished personality of the small Alpine village that drew visitors and tourists in the first place. For Pat and Rob, for the townspeople, the hometown they knew and loved would be forever changed. Lake Placid would lose its small town village character.

So Rob and Pat took action

First they formed a committee—and a plan—and took action.

The first meetings were held at the Grant home. Then, quickly, a web site, SaveLakePlacid.com was developed and launched. There, on their web site, step by step, action by action, petition by petition, the townspeople waged their battle in the public eye. Each move was tracked.

The townspeople rallied. Corporate promises were viewed with increasing skepticism. Petitions were circulated, signed and presented. Soon, the web site developed a following of citizens and caring people from all over who followed the newest developments in Lake Placid's battle to save itself.

Press releases helped to capture the media's attention. Print advertising alerted the townspeople. The news was reported on the web site. The town's plight proved a perfect media story. A classic fight was underway—a small town, with a treasured heritage, was being threatened by a behemoth development. Feature stories were written. Support came pouring in from other small towns and caring people.

And the developer listened

After all, no company wants to be viewed as a destroyer of the character of a special small town—their neighbors. Especially when the battle's being waged in front of the world. Executives from the hospitality corporation came to the town for town meetings that were organized by the townspeople themselves.

Four town meetings, much back and forth, then finally a project plan was drafted that met with townspeople approval. The scaled-back plan better fit the character of Lake Placid. And it met the zoning regulations as well.

David, aka Rob Grant, applauded the corporation's willingness to listen. And a representative from the corporation said, “We never had an intention of causing challenges and difficulties for our neighbors and community. If need be, we want to take the time to listen, be responsive and develop our strategy based on plans that will be received with enthusiasm and embraced by the local community.”

In the end, the people of Lake Placid and the developer were able to craft a scaled-back development where profit and preservation went hand-in-hand. They ended up with a win-win for everyone.

And just think--the David who faced Goliath in Lake Placid is a real estate broker. It's true, Rob Grant brokers real estate, but he doesn't broker his cherished small town of Lake Placid. He's a true Community Keeper.

Rob's five tips for towns who face Goliaths of their own

Be aware. Have sentries attend town meetings, planning meeting, review minutes that are part of the public record. People need to take a leadership role and alert the town to proposed development.

Establish zoning laws. Setting clear, progressive zoning regulations regarding set-backs, height, density, and requiring an architectural review, help lessen the threat of future out-of-scale over-development.

Move quickly. Prepare an action plan as soon as a threat is identified. Even better, have a plan in place before it's needed. It's better to be pro-active than defensive or re-active.

Go public. Use public relations and Web media technology to keep citizens and the public informed. SaveLakePlacid.com soon had a following of citizens and caring people from all over following the daily developments in Lake Placid's battle to preserve itself.

Prepare and present petitions. Let politicians know what you want—and don't want. Public officials are elected or appointed to serve the people. If the people are unhappy with their service, make opinions and desires known with petitions.

For further information on saving of Lake Placid, to download templates of petitions, and to follow the time-line of how the Battle to Save Lake Placid progressed to its ultimate success, go to SaveLakePlacid.com.

Do you have a Home-grown Hero in your town? Send us particulars and we may be featuring him or her in a future Vibrant Village edition. (use the reply box below)

More information resources:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has much useful information, publications and guidance for preserving small town heritage, establishing Main Street programs and four-point preservation plans.

For a thorough list of resources and publications, check out the USDA's list of Historic Preservation Resources.

© 2008, Patricia Frank. All rights reserved.


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