The Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce is off to a good reboot so far. It still has a long way to go, if its goal is to be what it was in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but it seems to be gearing up to march out in that direction.
It's been building up a base of member unity for months, and the recent hiring of Katy Van Anden as executive director was great news.
Ms. Van Anden seems to have the personal qualities - such as energy, organizational skills and social outreach - to do the job exceedingly well. She also has the qualifications: an event management and marketing degree, as well as experience in those fields here and in Massachusetts.
She also thoroughly knows the area and its business climate, and is motivated to make it a better place. She grew up in Saranac Lake, and her parents own a local business and have been deeply involved in the chamber over the years.
On top of all that, she's willing to do it part-time for now. Chamber officials tell us they want to make her full-time as soon as they can afford it. Financially, the organization still has some regrouping to do, having lost membership and municipal aid in recent years. Now they're focusing more on member services; they'll have to build up to more marketing and events.
The reason it slipped was simply that it was getting less accomplished. People want their money's worth in quality work that effectively helps the Saranac Lake area be a good place to do business.
This year, a new set of chamber board members made a renewed effort to solicit feedback on what people want, and they really listened to and acted on those people's comments.
The new board represents a good spectrum of businesses, from retailers to hoteliers. It has also partnered with the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and has a nice new website that we think will do a better job of spreading the good word about this area. Trust has been gained from groups that were doing things the chamber had previously done; they are now unified, making the chamber stronger and more sustainable.
Those who only know the chamber of the last decade or so should know that this is the organization that oversaw the founding and management of the now-legendary 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic and the entire Adirondack canoe race series, that was largely responsible for running Winter Carnival, that was instrumental in the Can-Am Rugby Tournament, that used to pack the Harrietstown Town Hall for top-notch concerts by the likes of Arlo Guthrie, that set up and managed a health insurance plan for local business owners, that had a staff of four or more. As recently as 10 years ago, when an Enterprise reporter would preview the annual rugby weekend, he or she could call the chamber office and get an exact count of how many occupied and vacant hotel rooms there were at any given time in the community. The chamber was like a middleman, referring visitors to lodging establishments.
This was the group that actively marketed Saranac Lake as the "Little City in the Adirondacks," a "pioneer health resort," the "Green Side of the Big Apple" and an "All-America City." When merchants complained about truck traffic downtown, the chamber director campaigned at village board meetings for a local law to reroute them - unsuccessfully, but still, it showed this business guild was actively representing its members' wishes.
Spending the last eight months without an executive director prompted members to do a lot of the work themselves, which has enriched their sense of ownership and accountability for the chamber's work. They seem more energized and hopeful than we've seen in a long time.
Expectations had dipped, but we see them rising from here on out.