Questions raised about ethics and safety of leaving Ray Brook headquarters
By Gwendolyn Craig
Adirondack Park Agency (APA) staff largely do not want their offices moved from Ray Brook to the village of Saranac Lake, according to a survey obtained by the Explorer through a Freedom of Information Law request. In anonymous comments, staff were concerned about the ethical implications of the move, their safety and limitations of the village site.
“This proposed move seems to be about what our Executive Director (Barbara Rice) can do for Saranac Lake and not about the good of the Agency,” one staff commenter wrote. “It truly feels like management wants to hear our opinions, as long as those opinions back up the proposed move. It feels like any concerns that have been brought up have been minimized and the employees have been marginalized.”
The APA survey is undated, but appears to have been conducted shortly after Rice gave two presentations to staff in January and February about the proposed move.
Rice is a Saranac Lake native, with a family furniture store in the village. She was also a village trustee and a Franklin County legislator. In 2018, she served as the state’s assistant secretary for economic development before taking on the role leading the APA in early 2022. The APA is charged with long-range planning for the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park. It also oversees public and private development, with an emphasis on protecting natural resources.
The New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government told the Explorer it cannot comment on a specific situation. A spokesperson, however, directed the Explorer to a passage in the state’s Code of Ethics, which says any state officer and employee “shall not…have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur any obligation of any nature, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or her duties in the public interest.”
Rice and APA spokesman Keith McKeever did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment on Friday.
APA Chairman John Ernst said he had not seen the survey.
“If large numbers of staff are uncomfortable, that has to be addressed, absolutely,” Ernst said. A decision had not yet been made to move the agency’s headquarters, he added. Rice, however, has told the Explorer and others publicly that it is the “preferred site” and a move could be as soon as early 2026. The agency was not studying the feasibility of using the existing building in Ray Brook.
The APA received $29 million in the state’s 2022 budget for its headquarters. The current building sits on land specially designated for state administrative use, meaning it cannot be privately developed. In April, the agency announced it was considering a move to the historic Paul Smith’s Power and Light Building at 1-3 Main St., Saranac Lake. Renderings shared with the Explorer show the APA would add a 500-square-foot addition to the building. It would also construct a second building, 19,000 square feet, along the Lake Street side of the property. The APA would build a 72-space parking lot. The agency would lease the buildings from the village.
The agency has received mixed praise and criticism for the proposal. Most recently, 19 former APA staff and board members wrote Gov. Kathy Hochul against the move. They also called for more transparency. In response to that letter, McKeever said the village proposal allows APA to renovate an historic building, revitalize an urban area and create an energy-efficient headquarters. “While the Saranac Lake site is the preferred site, a final decision will be contingent upon the results of the ongoing feasibility study. The full report will be available to the public once complete.” APA considered multiple sites “within five miles of APA’s existing location. This radius was set because it was very important to APA that existing staff was not significantly impacted by a relocation a substantial distance away from their present homes,” McKeever said.
The APA has a current staff of 44 and 36 answered the survey. More than half of respondents disagreed, or strongly disagreed, about moving the APA’s location to Saranac Lake. Several respondents were neutral about the move, and a few were in support. The majority did not think the APA should leave Ray Brook. The majority were concerned about parking availability, safety of the site and the building’s condition.
A question also asked whether staff looked forward to more food and shopping opportunities by moving to the village. Most said no.
In a question about whether staff were concerned about splitting the headquarters into two buildings, the agency provided a numerical breakout of the responses. Of the 36, 25 staff were concerned. Nine were not concerned, though two of those said the cost of maintaining two buildings “seems counterintuitive.”
Anonymous comments posted at the end of the survey show 23 statements concerned about the optics of moving to Saranac Lake.
The Saranac Lake Police Department still resides at the Main Street building, but the village is hoping to build a public safety complex on Petrova Avenue. APA staff said APA permits would need to be issued for that complex, and for the agency’s own proposed building. A variance may also be required for the agency’s new headquarters, staff said. A commenter asked how staff were supposed to review the public safety complex “in a professional manner while feeling pressure from above to green light it so the police will move and APA can take over 1 Main,” while granting themselves another order “for development in the 50-foot setback?”
One commenter wrote there were “potential issues of leasing property from an entity that we will have to review projects for.”
Some staff said the move wouldn’t make much of a difference since they often telecommute. Most, however, thought moving to Saranac Lake and having two buildings would be detrimental to communication. Commenters worried about walking between two buildings in bad weather. Some asked how the state would afford the utilities for two buildings.
Nine commenters had concerns about their safety should the agency move. The APA, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, upholds some of the strictest zoning codes in the United States. During its early years, there were plenty of threats and vandalism at the Ray Brook offices. Staff said they felt safer at the Ray Brook site where New York State Police are also headquartered. Others had more public health concerns about the village building’s deteriorating condition.
Five commenters thought moving away from the Ray Brook campus would negatively impact the agency’s work with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which also has offices there.
Stephen Erman, who worked at the APA for 28 years as its special assistant for economic affairs, told the Explorer the village site is zoned multi-family residential. Should the APA move there, it would take away the possibility of 15 market-rate apartments in an area in need of affordable housing. One commenter said taking the “parcel out of the pool for usage by the private citizens of the Park is unfair without a transparent public process.”
Adirondack policy, in plain speak.
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