The issues facing Long Lake are much like those facing many Adirondack towns — only more so.
With an estimated 2018 population of 379 people — fewer than one person per square mile — there is an ongoing struggle to maintain basic services in a place where a college basketball game can be played in the time it takes for an ambulance to get from the hamlet of Raquette Lake to the nearest hospital in Utica.
Yet the assets of Long Lake are remarkable as well, with its lakes, rivers, mountains, miles of trails and great swaths of unspoiled forest. These wonders increase the population exponentially in the tourist season, which, while economically beneficial, strains services and resources all the more.
“Everything’s a little more isolated here,” said Alex Roalsvig, the town’s director of parks, recreation and tourism. “But that’s also what sets us apart.”
Government wonders where its tax base will come from. Parents wonder who will employ their children. Young people wonder how they will be able to afford a home in the town where they grew up. Residents wonder how to attract throngs of economy-stimulating tourists without destroying the region’s small-town charm.
To answer some of these questions, the Town of Long Lake is drawing up its first comprehensive plan, which is designed to be a roadmap for future initiatives as well as baseline information for grants that could help pay for those initiatives.
Making a plan
“This will position us well for the future,” said Long Lake Supervisor Clay Arsenault, who said staff, advisory committee and residents have combined over the past two years to come up with a document reflective of the town’s needs.
The plan, currently in draft form, was funded by Empire State Development and written by consultants Chazen Companies of Glens Falls. Last week the town board set a date of Jan. 27 for public comment on the plan.
“We started almost from scratch,” said Ethan Gaddy, a planner for Chazen, adding that every effort was made to collect citizen input — a task made all the more difficult in the time of COVID-19. But the message from residents was pretty clear: They want new businesses, they treasure the outdoors, and they want the basic and reliable services that people in most parts of the state take for granted, such as dependable electricity, cell-phone reception and a grocery store.
“That was one of the big questions everyone had — how do we get businesses here,” said Chazen Planner Paul Cummings said during an Oct. 22 videoconference. “Even if you could just get three, four, five small businesses, that in itself is a victory.”
But sustaining a business with so few potential customers is tricky, particularly in the shoulder seasons when the tourists disappear.
Long Lake has suffered a precipitous decline in population, losing 8% of its people a year since the 2010 Census when it had 711 residents. The draft plan says the town should focus on encouraging young families to move in, either by establishing a new, or taking over a current business, or by working remotely.
“One of the most important challenges facing young families in the area is the availability of affordable housing and living-wage jobs,” the plan states. “Additionally, the Town of Long Lake has seen its population age, with a growing number of retirees and seniors.”
The town is also somewhat boxed in by a lack of affordable housing and an almost enforced remoteness, where three quarters of the land in the town is either in the Adirondack Forest Preserve or falls under the state’s most restrictive land-use designation.
The plan recognizes tourism and recreation — the very ruralness that makes it hard to sustain a business — as key components to the town’s success. Roalsvig said that means getting the word out about trails and activities, and developing ways to connect trails and recreational venues. Long-distance hut-to-hut hiking, snowmobile trails and mountain biking are all mentioned for their potential.
The plan caters to year-round residents as well, focusing on schools, fire departments, infrastructure and communications. Both, the plan says, need “services or infrastructure that could support living in Long Lake or Raquette Lake full time, such as improved broadband and internet access, greater availability of housing for families and the retirement community, and access to grocery stores.”
The Year of COVID, paradoxically, gave a taste of what might be. This year, the Adirondacks offered an appealing destination for city dwellers who did not want to get on a plane.
Lorrie Hosley, owner of Hoss’s Country Store, said this has been a record-setting year for business, with lots of people new to the area asking about things to do. Real estate has been selling too, as people get their first look at Long Lake and like what they see.
Hosley said time will tell whether this is a one-year phenomenon or the start of a trend.
In keeping with this, the comprehensive plan mentions the importance of first impressions, and anticipates mainstreet and beautification projects to keep people coming back — a mission many small Adirondack communities are striving for.
Arsenault said he has looked to Newcomb, a town of similar size, which is successfully implementing its comprehensive plan, and sought guidance from Newcomb Supervisor Robin DeLoria.
DeLoria said the town’s plan helped it strategize its future and find the grants to pay for improvements. “It began with the High Peaks Golf Course, the pavilion at the High Peaks Overlook and dining and lodging establishments,” he said. “Now we’re developing a Town Center at the Overlook Park that will include a historic welcome center with exhibits that showcase local industrial and cultural heritage, provide educational activities, host community events, serve as a hub for outdoor recreational opportunities and attract visitors to support businesses in the Five Towns Upper Hudson River Recreation Hub.”
It’s been a lot of progress in a town that 18 months ago didn’t even have a gas pump.
Long Lake hopes its comprehensive plan will open up similar opportunities, without damaging the small-town feel. “Stakeholders were adamant,” the plan states, “about balancing economic growth while preserving the rural character of the community — the things that make Long Lake Long Lake.”