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Support for Workforce Housing Project Dims

Support for Workforce Housing Project Dims March 12, 2024
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Lake George needs housing for 500 seasonal and transient workers. A plan to build a workforce housing development on the site of a derelict motel is in now in jeopardy.

A workforce housing project on the site of an aging motel, which Lake George pitched as part of its successful bid for a $10 million New York State Downtown Revitalization Grant, is shedding public support, officials say. And a fear the hostel might be used to house migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. is among the reasons why, according to Mayor Ray Perry and Dan Barusch, the Director of Planning and Zoning.

“The project has lost traction; there’s not a huge appetite for it,” said Mayor Perry. “People have expressed a lot of concerns, in ways that reflect the political climate.”

“There is a certain level of fear-mongering within the community, as well as misinformation,” said Barusch. “Both are pushing us to reconsider the location for workforce housing.”

No official from either New York City or New York State has indicated there are any plans to transport migrants to Warren County, said Don Lehman, Warren County’s Director of Public Affairs.

In any event, that would be prohibited under the terms of an Emergency Order, which the Warren County Board of Supervisors adopted in May, 2023 and which has been updated every five days since then.

The Emergency Order also blocks motels, campgrounds, short-term rental proprietors and apartment owners from renting to asylum-seeking migrants without the approval of the Board of Supervisors.

However, according to one prominent Village restaurant owner who preferred to remain nameless, a resolution by the County Board is unlikely to deter New York State from placing migrants in the facility, especially if state funds have been used to construct it.

“If it’s the state’s dime, if it has a vested interest in the project, it will feel justified in placing migrants there,” he said.

Another business owner, who also requested anonymity, said, “If the J-One Visa students live there for 12 weeks, who’s going to live in that building the other 40 weeks of the year?”

He said that he had been told of migrants moving into neighboring communities and creating a burden for local school districts.

As originally proposed, the motel on the south bank of West Brook would be purchased by the Town and Village and then demolished and replaced by a combination of dormitory rooms and studio apartments able to lodge 300 seasonal and transient workers.

The Village and Town “have a gentleman’s agreement” with the owner to keep the property off the market unless and until the municipalities are in a position to purchase it, said Barusch.

The property, which is not currently under contract, has an assessed value of $1.8 million, said Barusch.

According to Barusch, a 2023 Lake George study identified workers holding J-1 and H2B work visas as being in immediate need of affordable, safe housing.

As many as 500 people require accommodations every year, said Barusch.

“While a few businesses have purchased and renovated older motels and other buildings to house their employees, additional housing is needed to accommodate the seasonal workers that fill our jobs in the summer and, increasingly, at other times of the year,” said Barusch.

The motel property on West Brook met much of the criteria for workforce housing, situated as it is on Route Nine, along the trolley line, and removed from residential neighborhoods. The site could also accommodate event parking, which would not only service Festival Commons, Beach Road and Shepard Park but generate revenues to offset the costs of purchasing the property.

Village and Town officials said they were interested in forming a public-private partnership with International Residence Hall, a subsidiary of Holtz Companies of Wisconsin, to build and manage the hostel.

According to Ray Perry, the company has created similar employee housing projects in resort towns across the country.

“International Residence Hall is the gold standard for this type of housing project,” said Barusch. “It has helped resort towns such as Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, become year-round communities. We were hoping it could do something similar for us.”

Apart from fearing the facility could become housing for asylum seekers or for clients of social services agencies, some people oppose concentrating a population of workers in one place near the heart of the community, said Barusch.

Others object to removing a potentially valuable development site from the property tax roles.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to find housing for these workers; I just think placing it on a prime piece of property overlooking Lake George is a bad idea,” said one local businessman.

John Carr, whose distillery, brewery and restaurant neighbor the property, said,  “I don’t think high density, transient housing on the main street, visible to everyone,  is an appropriate use for grant money intended to revitalize our downtown. It was not a housing grant.”

He added, “I don’t think it’s the role of government to provide benefits to businesses. If employers are sponsoring international students, they should be responsible for their housing.”

Nevertheless, Barusch said, some entities and other people, New York State officials included, still favor the project.

Barusch said the proposal will be evaluated this spring by a Local Planning Committee, to be formed to vet projects which have the greatest potential to win funding from the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Grant.

The committee, working with consultants, will also consider proposals to disperse worker accommodations across several sites, said Barusch.

“While a preferred site location has been identified, a comprehensive site selection process is being conducted to identify other sites for one or more housing projects,” Barusch stated.

A recent Pew Charitable Trust study found that seasonal economies with high housing costs are at a disadvantage when attracting workers. Windham Mountain, the Catskill ski resort, for instance, has made a multi-million dollar investment in workforce housing, purchasing and renovating  a fifteen-room motel.

And workforce housing is not a novel concept for Lake George. The Village hosted such a facility in the 1950s, said former Lake George Mayor Bob Blais.

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