Adirondack town with proud history works to restore grandeur
By James M. Odato
Wearing a black-and-red flannel shirt, Amanda Slattery hustled behind the bar at the Burgoyne Grill at the Best Western hotel on the outskirts of Ticonderoga. She works at the lounge five nights a week in this historic town on the eastern edge of the Adirondacks.
On Sundays, Slattery also pours drinks at the Knights of Columbus hall, one of the few watering holes downtown.
And three afternoons during the warmer months, Slattery mixes cocktails at Emerald’s II, a seasonal restaurant. Slattery, 32, joked that she has three jobs—one for each of her children.
Like her town, which trades on American history and tourism, she is getting by.
Like many of her friends, relatives and neighbors, she dreams of a stronger economic future.
A host of Ticonderoga believers is striving for that same goal, and battling obstacles.
Good-paying jobs are scarce outside of paper mill employment, and a series of fires torched some of the town’s assets and dampened morale. “It was so devastating,” Slattery said, recalling the blaze that destroyed Emerald’s, a restaurant at the Ticonderoga Golf Course. That eatery and the entire clubhouse and pro shop burned to the ground in May 2018.
Emerald’s II opened down 9N from the golf course beside the historic Adirondack Lanes. Then the bowling alley erupted in an early-morning conflagration on Dec. 15, 2019. Its 10 lanes were lost in the ashes, along with a wall of photos honoring locals including Slattery’s father, Rollin. He had bowled a perfect game.
Where everyone knows each other
Slattery grew up in town, which locals call “Ti.” She is a single mother whose kids attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. With two bachelor’s degrees and a year of law school, she planned for another bar altogether. But the 2005 graduate of Ticonderoga High School opted to raise her children in the town nestled beside Mount Defiance and between Lake George and Lake Champlain, where everyone knows each other. She missed the mountains and the lakes when she was away—the hunting, fishing and hiking—and she missed her community.
If leaders are successful, Ti will shine, the bowling alley and the golf course will be rebuilt into greater cultural hubs, and deteriorating buildings will undergo much-needed sprucing up. And two key attractions—one capitalizing on the 18th century Fort Ticonderoga at the north end of town, the other dedicated to the 1960s TV series “Star Trek”—will grow and pull visitors in from near and far.
Ticonderoga has toughed out a series of blows since the French, Native Americans and British fought along the water that leads to Canada. The rejuvenation of St. Mary’s school is a recent example. It suffered $3 million in damages in an arson fire in 2014.
The fire that damaged the Catholic school set off investigations that remain unsolved, but its classrooms reopened in 2015 after a major reconstruction project, much of it paid for through fundraising. The calamity resulted in a “wonderful” experience, a showing of the community’s resilience, said the school’s principal, Sister Sharon Dalton. The wider community pitched in with more than $250,000, including space for studies and a cafeteria at the local Methodist church, furnishings, supplies and money from fund drives and dinners. Slattery contributed bartending tips and wages.
“Whenever anybody’s down and out and something happens, the parish—in general the people—pulls together, at least all the years I’ve been here,” said Sister Sharon, assigned to the school by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Watertown 34 years ago.
The big thing Ticonderoga needs, she said, is more people, particularly younger families.
Enrollment is at 100 for the pre-K to eighth grade school, down from a high of 400 in the 1950s, when International Paper was still downtown. That’s when the plant employed about twice the 620 now on its payroll and before it relocated four miles away.
The plant is the biggest taxpayer in a public school district of 731 students, down from 851 seven years ago. The district estimates its population at 5,564, most of them Ticonderoga residents, but also including Hague.
The fires at Adirondack Lanes, part of the community since 1955, and the golf course, opened in 1926, were caused by electrical or wiring problems, fire inspectors determined. The bowling alley will be rebuilt if the insurance money is sufficient, said co-owner Donna Fleury. Her father opened the lanes a few years before she was born.
“To let it just die is going to be really difficult for me,” she said. Restoration will cost $1 million, she estimated. The fire happened after the alley had been closed most of 2019 for roof and ice damage repairs. It had been outfitted with an updated bar, big TV and new carpet, and was ready for use by leagues and locals seeking an inexpensive night out.
“You know how many $4.50 games you have to sell to pay off $1 million?” Fleury said. Her place was more than a sporting outlet. Locals call it an important social gathering spot. Fleury, who is the bowling coach at the high school, said patrons will have to travel miles away to Mineville, Lake George, Whitehall or Plattsburgh to get their bowling fix.
“It’s always a big deal when you’re talking about a major employer here, and a big one is sometimes someone with a half a dozen or so jobs,” said Donna Wotton, executive director of the Ticonderoga Revitalization Alliance. She said the alliance is available for loans to businesses needing help. It has been trying to assist the golf club and save a couple of dozen jobs, three fifths of which are now uncertain.
“It’s really essential to get that clubhouse rebuilt to get those 15 jobs here. Fifteen jobs is a really a big number,” Wotton said. The fires were a gut punch. “You’re hitting us where it really hurts, and we can’t afford it anymore.”
More than golf
Wotton’s group intends to provide the club a low-interest loan. An insurance settlement was well short of the money needed to build the bigger, better facility—one that will meet 21st century code requirements such as a fire suppression system and an elevator, said Paul Brauner, a club director. The directors are attempting to raise $4.1 million and need about $2 million more in commitments. The financial target could have been greater had not Saratoga Springs contractor Sonny Bonacio agreed to do the job for $1 million less than the lowest bid.
Brauner and club president Rob Brennick said they envision building a modern facility with year-round dining, top-level golf and a new catering operation to host wedding parties and other events. The idea is to have the club become a resource to an adjacent business, The Barn at Lord Howe Valley, which opened three years ago to stage larger gatherings. The two businesses share the same million-dollar view, Brennick said, and could partake in business growth too. Club directors are already in talks with an established caterer.
“We need more activities,” Brauner said. “It’s not just golf.” The course, which underwent a five-year, $3 million upgrade that mitigated annual flooding from Trout Creek, has been a money losing operation for years. Membership is at about 160 golfers, about 100 fewer than in the early 2000s, and trends are not strong for a sport that consumes about four hours for 18 holes. Yet, the course won Adirondack Life magazine’s 2015 reader’s poll for the best within the Adirondack Park’s blue line and has a market for the second-home owners and visitors who flock to the lakes region in the summer.
“It’s a potential revenue engine for the economic development of Ticonderoga,” Brauner said. “We cannot let this place go under. We have one opportunity to do this right and we need to be smart about it and not just put up a bar where people can go and drink. We need to aspire to be more than what we were.”
Brauner was disappointed with a state economic development grant of $250,000, announced in December. It was $350,000 less than what he sought.
The revitalization alliance, with a mission is to “restore” economic prosperity to Ticonderoga, has been working with an array of local economic development organizations. It secured a $95,000 federal grant to set up curriculum in the regional high school to prepare students for vocational jobs, but an attempt to get North Country Community College’s Ticonderoga campus to build a School of Applied Technology failed.
The alliance also got a state grant of $50,000 to help it target and fix up “zombie” properties. The group identified 101 such abandoned or vacant structures for just one round of the project.
The alliance is helping investors buy and restore key downtown addresses. One group, which includes the head of the Alliance, Sandy Morhouse, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. It purchased and rehabilitated a tired property in the center of town which now houses a popular bakery and sandwich shop called Libby’s and built residential units upstairs available for NCCC students.
Another Morhouse partnership plans to build a boutique hotel at the large building where the Cobbler’s Bench furniture store once operated nearby. It is one of many closed and underused main street storefronts being eyed for new ventures, Wotton said. A Morhouse partnership also owns a building that houses the Ticonderoga Natural Foods Co-op, which opened in the summer of 2015, to offer an alternative to the Walmart superstore outside of town.
Since the big box store opened in 1998, a variety of retailers have closed in downtown. Still, many locals travel to Middlebury, Vermont, or Schroon Lake or Lake George for supermarkets.
The Ti Co-Op is one of the new businesses local leaders point to with pride. Others include the Wind-Chill Factory, a seasonal soft ice cream shop/grill near the golf course; Olive’s Ti-Pi Pizzeria in downtown; and Lake George Paddle & Pickleball. The latter includes a couple of raised courts on the southern entrance to Ticonderoga run by Morhouse’s wife, Patty Hogan, a national platform tennis champion.
“I have seen a turnaround in the Ticonderoga area,” Morhouse said. “We are making great strides.” A downstate lawyer who graduated from Ticonderoga High School and played halfback on its undefeated 1960 football team, he said the town has a lot of ground to gain to get back to the vitality of his youth. Many of the investors are people like him who made their money elsewhere and want a healthier economic environment in their retirement or weekend community.
A final frontier
One of the growing businesses that gives business leaders hope is the brainchild of another Ti High graduate, James Cawley. His Star Trek Original Series Set Tour trails only the fort, which brings in more than 70,000 tourists annually, as a unique attraction. Cawley’s creation offers replicas of the sets in which the hit TV series was filmed two generations ago.
Opened in 2016, the spaceship sets have drawn people from around the world, and they filter into Libby’s, a new gift store, and the few hotels and bars, some of which offer special “Star Trek” beers. Slattery said she has served fans from as far away as England.
Cawley’s tour allows Trekkies to recreate scenes from the show in a building that had been empty for years. Grocery stores had once occupied the place before Family Dollar tried and left. Cawley beamed more than 10,000 visitors through his museum in 2019, and now plans to expand to an adjacent empty building where JJ Newberry Co. once operated a department store. He intends to set up the Star Trek Next Generation Set Tour there, drawing from the more recent TV series that moved the original story to the 24th century.
His financing has included low interest loans from the Ticonderoga Revitalization Alliance, and $170,000 in state tourism funds. Cawley, 53, said the town struggled for decades and never fully recovered from a highway bypass in the 1970s and from fires that happened before he was born, such as one in 1953 at the Burleigh House, a Victorian inn that commanded a corner of Montcalm Street. “It was a steady decline,” he said. Even the State Theater, the sole movie house where he saw “Star Wars” in 1977, closed and eventually collapsed. The vacant lot faces the chamber of commerce.
Some investors are motivated by civic duty and a desire to live in a more vibrant community. Claire Brown, a 1976 graduate of Ti High, is partner with Mimi Treadway, a 1966 graduate, in Libby’s. The cafe, with six employees, is named after Brown’s grandmother. After six years in business, Brown is proud of its contribution to rebuilding the village. “When your downtown suffers you lose a sense of community that Ticonderoga had when I grew up,” Brown said. Each year, sales have increased and traffic from the fort’s and Cawley’s Star Trek events—such as the three-day “Trekonderoga”—help. On some days, customers in colonial garb have been seated by visitors dressed as characters from the Space Age TV show.
Tom Cunningham, a local who traveled the world for oil and gas companies, came back in 2016 after four decades. He and his wife have purchased downtown buildings and plan a restaurant along the La Chute River. He said the region boasts two beautiful lakes “so Ticonderoga needs to focus on tourism as its income base going forward.”
The town is graying, though. International Paper has been recruiting and training as retirements mount among the hourly workforce, said Donna Wadsworth, the IP communications manager. “We’re hiring 30 to 50 people a year now to make sure we are staffed fully,” she said. “Unemployment in our region is very low. The applicants are not as robust as we want.” One challenge is that workers must be willing to take rotating shifts. Still, she said, the company has had good luck selling the region to salaried professionals who enjoy the outdoors.
A member of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, Wadsworth has spent 40 years working in Ticonderoga, the first 20 as the director of the community college’s satellite campus across from Bicentennial Park, the original location of IP. She said she’s impressed with the level of collaboration among the various development groups.
Those groups say they are committed to finding ways for locals to remain. Slattery said she is happy tending bar in Ti, but these groups must be successful, “so my kids can grow up here and make a living here and raise their families here.”