Nonprofit Northern Forest Center to redevelop former hotel
By Tim Rowland
Tupper Lake is looking to build its defenses against rampant short-term rentals (STRs) with the help of private enterprise, public programming, nonprofits and a willingness on the part of some to sell real estate at lower prices for the greater public good.
At the intersection of these four ingredients are two properties on Park Street, including the former Plaza Hotel, owned by the family of Ron LaScala, a village trustee. LaScala said he was in the process of renovating the hotel, which had transitioned into an apartment building, when Covid came along, sending property values soaring.
The building caught the attention of the nonprofit Northern Forest Center, which has a track record investing in rural communities throughout New England and northern New York with an eye to building sustainable economies and lifestyles.
The Center had successfully renovated a property in Lancaster, N.H., into workforce-housing space, and saw potential for a similar venture in Tupper, said Leslie Karasin, Adirondack Program Manager.
At the same time, Tupper Lake had just won a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, opening up the potential for creatively enhancing the downtown. The Center budgeted $2.6 million for purchase and renovation of nine housing units, about a quarter to come from DRI funding.
The rambling building caught the eye of a developer, who made an offer that was almost too good to refuse, more than $100,000 higher. The LaScalas held a quick family pow-wow, and decided in the grand scheme that the lesser amount was in the village’s best interest. “We looked into the Northern Forest Center and liked what we saw,” he said. “We’re a community oriented family, so there really wasn’t much of a discussion.”
LaScala said he believes short-term rentals play a role in a healthy tourist economy, but that an inventory of workforce housing needs to be established first. Like many Adirondack communities, that’s a problem. “We don’t have much short-term rental property, but then we don’t have much rental property of any kind,” he said.
He hopes the Northern Forest Center project will be a piece of the puzzle, complementing the 92-unit housing project announced earlier at the former Oval Wood Dish factory.
Karasin said the Northern Forest project envisions eight rental apartments, plus the free-standing house, and fits with the Center’s goal of making it possible for young, working families to repopulate Adirondack communities.
“We want to create conditions to recruit and retain young people, and housing availability and affordability are key elements of that,” Karasin said.
Another emerging problem is that housing that’s affordable for working people is decrepit, and a disincentive to luring young professionals such as teachers and nurses.
The new apartments will be bright and modern, and something in which their inhabitants can take pride. “Housing quantity is an issue, but so is housing quality,” Karasin said. “If you are a young nurse looking at the community, you will want to know whether there is something attainable to you of high enough quality that will make you want to sign a lease.”
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Too often the answer is no, as businesses, nonprofits and local governments have all reported that a major reason they are having trouble finding help is that potential employees are unable to find a place to live. That’s pushed employees to the fringes of the park, where they spend excessive amounts of time and burn excessive amounts of gas just getting to their jobs.
By contrast, Karasin said the Tupper project will also help “create a community that’s within walking and biking distance” of downtown shops, services and restaurants.
Based on its experience in New Hampshire, Karasin said the Center knows such a project is feasible, even if it takes a special set of conditions to get off the ground. “This is a model that works,” she said.
And finding a family willing to make less profit to get a housing project off the ground is not as uncommon as it might seem. The Lussi family in Lake Placid donated land for a new affordable-housing apartment complex, and an anonymous family in Wilmington is selling land at a considerable discount for a workforce-housing project south of the hamlet. “Goodwill in the community is part of it,” Karasin said. “You’re seeing more acts of out-and-out philanthropy” in the housing market.
The permanence of these projects is also important to renters, many of whom have come to fear a knock on the door from a landlord advising that the residential home is being converted into a vacation rental.
LaScala said it’s hard to blame property owners, who can earn far more in the vacation market. Homeowners in the village also face a triple whammy of taxation — state, town and village — that drives them into the short-term rental market.
“For them, it almost becomes a matter of survival,” he said. “They’re trying to supplement their income because the taxes are out of control.”
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