by Dan McClelland
The two women who plan to “create a new vision for Park Street” with the construction of their Crossroads Hotel on vacant lots across from the Free Press office shared their dream with about 40 or so interested residents Tuesday at the Aaron Maddox Hall on Main Street.
Partners Betsy Lowe, co-founder of the Wild Center, and Nancy Howard, former co-owner of the Wawbeek Resort on Upper Saranac Lake, were accompanied by their building and design team that afternoon.
Things are in high gear on the project but a sum of $150,000 is needed to bring it to what one developer called the finish line.
Betsy took the audience back nearly 20 years ago when she and Nancy and Jon Kopp and many others here were all working on the Wild Center and were looking at locations for it around the community. She said although the former 330 Lodge and DiStefano Liquor Store properties really caught their attention as they were situated right at “the crossroads of the Adirondacks” they knew it was “way too small” a site for what was planned.
She said they knew it had strong value and so she and her partners later bought the 330 Lodge site at auction. They later purchased the liquor store parcel from the state Department of Transportation at the time it was widening the corner and had to raze the building. The DiStefano family's apartment building was later purchased from Mary DiStefano's sons.
The 330 Lodge site has been used for community parking since then with the owners' permission.
Nancy Howard said when the property acquisition took place she was president of the chamber of commerce and many community leaders at that time were looking ahead to what they wanted Tupper Lake to become with respect to a tourist destination. “We were thinking a lot in those days about the Tupper Lake community, those who comprise it and those who kept it ticking!”
She said she and her husband Norman over the years had employed over 100 Tupper Lake people at their Wawbeek Resort and found that their workers and the people of Tupper Lake, in general, possessed two important qualities: a natural friendliness, which was confirmed by their guests many times, and a strong work ethic.
Time and time again they were impressed with stories of employees coming in early or staying late to take care of important issues at their Wawbeek, without being asked. “Money cannot buy these traits so precious in the hospitality business!”
She said Tupper Lake is currently served with “an overnight hospitality” industry. Those lodging businesses are the reason, she said, that many community events like the Tin Man Triathlon and the Woodsmen's Days are so successful year after year.
In Tupper Lake's early years there were many large hotels which are now gone, she lamented.
“So I think you'll all agree that the time is nigh for a full-service hotel!”
She showed the crowd a postcard of the uptown business district from Jon Kopp's collection that was enlarged to poster size.
It showed that no matter which way passersby approach the site it is very visible at the Route 3 and 30 intersection, she said, holding up the poster. The site also boasts some magnificent sunsets across Raquette Pond, she added.
Betsy introduced Jacob Wright, president of Skyward Hospitality, a hotel management company, who brought along with him several of his colleagues, Andrew Milne, his chief operating officer, Tim Barnhart, chief investment officer, all of whom have been in the hotel business for many years.
Skyward Hospitality has been hired to develop the hotel project.
“Our company...our partners...the people we work with have completed over 500 hotels...mostly larger projects over $100 million.”
He said they are currently involved with the large $27 million hotel complex underway on the shores of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake, which will be about twice the size of the proposed Tupper Hotel. “Over there we've been through the hurdles of the APA” and the various entitlements, design, etc.
“Together we have a decent amount of experience getting through the process to put a hotel in the ground in this marketplace!
“One thing I wanted to clarify, because I think there are misconceptions about New York State and other things, is the timeline. Betsy and Nancy have had the property since 1999. It's a gem and has been a sparkle in their eyes for quite a long time.”
He said the project actually “started when they were awarded the grant from New York State through the North Country Economic Development Council in August, 2017. “So it's really only been 23 months.”
“During that time they have configured the land. They bought a house (on Lake St.) recently”...and the DOT was finishing up its work on the uptown redevelopment as late as 2017.
He reminded the audience that development take a long time. “If you live in Tupper Lake, you have a good how long they take,” referring to the 16 plus year process so far with the Adirondack Club and Resort.
Mr. Wright said the Hotel Saranac project in Saranac Lake took almost five years and their project on the lake “took four and one half years to get in the ground.”
He said everyone now, including New York State officials, now realize that developments in the Adirondack Park take more than two years.
Mr. Wright said the partners have “got a lot together” in the two years since 2017 when they were awarded the $2 million dollar grant on a project estimated at that time of over $10 million.
“Some have said the project has lagged, but if you really look at the time from when they could really start (in 2017)...it hasn't been a long period of time: 23 months.”
He said he and his associates have been working with Nancy and Betsy for about a year- refining the business plan and the size of the hotel, among other things.
There have been two major studies and market plans completed by noted firms that were commissioned by the partners, he said. Much of that information was used in Skyward Hospitality's work.
“What we wanted to do is figure out what's the right size for this marketplace and what will work financially, and what we came up with is 45 rooms.”
“In the busy time you need enough rooms to make your hay...to make enough money!”
If they had proposed a 70-room facility, the cost of building would have exceeded over $15 million plus, he told the audience. They new hotel in Saranac Lake will provide over 90 rooms and the cost is over $25 million, according to the developer.
He said the higher costs make it more difficult to finance in Tupper Lake, and not because Tupper has any issues, but because compared with Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, “the market (for rooms) has a little room to grow” in terms of a hospitality anchor.
He said Nancy's and Betsy's vision has always been: “let's put this right-sized hotel on the main corridor” that may be a catalyst or
“a cornerstone” for other growth here. “Frankly this is very realistic!”
He said his firm spent a lot of time with the partners to put together a financial and debt package that is very realistic.
Mr. Wright said in the interest of full transparency, the partners are not going to “knock it out of the park” and make millions of dollars in profits. “This truly a project for the community!”
“You can see that in the numbers and the investors have really taken that to mind!”
He added everyone involved is just interested in making reasonable returns on their investments.
Andrew Milne said the proximity to their project in Saranac Lake where over 70 people will be employed as early as this fall will be helpful for training of new employees when the Crossroads Hotel opens here.
Jacob Wright said the great thing about their company is that it is based here and “is growing its offices” in nearby Lake Placid. “But we also have nationwide expertise!”
Tim Barnhart, the firm's chief investment officer who recently relocated to the area with his family from Hawaii, said for the past ten years he has worked on large hotel projects all over the U.S. and Mexico.
“This is a somewhat different deal for us working on something somewhat smaller.”
The size of the property has been the reason for its 45-room size, he told the audience.
“We didn't want something too big for this parcel but big enough to be profitable.”
He called the proposed hotel “Goldilocks-sized” for the property.
“From our performance perspective- how we expect the hotel to perform financially and the daily rates we can charge, we have been conservative. It's not about making millions for Nancy and Betsy. It's about serving the community and being a real asset.”
“We really look for places that are very unique in America and around the world and we look for projects that need help and that can really help their communities,” he said of his firm's goals.
“I always tell the story...Betsy called about five years ago and told me she has this property in Tupper Lake where she would like to build a hotel. She asked me: 'Andy, am I crazy?'”
“I told her if it was anyone else but Betsy, I would have to say: yes.”
“To someone who built the Wild Center, you can't really say no to.”
The audience laughed.
“If she called me again today, I would certainly tell her it wasn't a crazy idea.” He said tourism has dramatically changed in the last ten years.
Tourism today is enjoying an “amazing synergy of new tourism,” not of projects being built but people wanting to get in their cars and drive someplace that is not like their place...where they can be near some downtown and walk to it. That's why this project is perfect!”
“The beauty of this project is that it's not a hotel to make money...it's a downtown revitalization project...to create a synergy downtown to help all businesses there,” said Mr. Barnhart.
“You already have a character in your downtown which is already being brushed up,” he said, noting the new hotel will add more to the brushing work.
He said the hotel coming to Park St. is coming at a time when New York State is investing heavily in tourism.
He added that all generations now are looking for short vacations in their states and their sections of the country.
Mr. Barnhart said a 40- to 45-room hotel, with a great restaurant that is good for both locals and visitors, “will be a gem...and that's sort of the design we've come up with!”
He said of the five hotel projects his firm is working on right now- three in the park and two downstate- “none are more well positioned than this one...right place for the right project.”
“It's going to be beautiful when it's built and going to be a great anchor for you downtown.”
Jacob Wright came back to the microphone to wrap up the presentation.
“Many may be questioning: how real is this project?”
“The land has been acquired. It's a great site plan involving six properties.”
Mr. Wright said many developers applying for state or federal grants don't own the properties...they have only options on them.
“Betsy and Nancy own the land. They have the state grant. The feasibility studies are complete.” They are also working with a leading Syracuse legal firm.
He said they also have a solid plan to raise capital for their project and the staff to do it. There have also been “preliminary meetings” with local land use and zoning officials, he added.
Mr. Wright said the project is situated in the hamlet, a good thing with respect to APA oversight, and the parcels are currently zoned for hotel development.
“They are literally one step away from the finish line,” he said of the partners' progress.
The final step, he explained, is financial help from “angels” and local partners to prepare togo before local permitting agencies.
To a question about access to the site from Cole Taylor, who recently restored the former Woods residence on the corner of Lake and Mill, Betsy Lowe said the reason they acquired a house on Lake Street was to provide a second entrance way into the new hotel.
Asked about the importance of the reopening of the Big Tupper Ski Center, Ms. Lowe said that while it would be most welcome to their project, the studies they commissioned gave the project the green light even if that didn't happen anytime soon.
A person who said he was a consultant to the Wild Center figured the new Crossroads Hotel and the venues here in Tupper Lake will make it very desirable for destination weddings. “I prayed for something like this coming to Tupper!” He said he had been married here 20 years ago and was thankful Nancy Howard was still in business at that time to host their special day.
Betsy told the group the site had a special memory for her. Years ago when she was commuting between her camp in Long Lake and her job at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation in Ray Brook she discovered she had a flat tire when she stopped at Mary DiStefano's to buy a bottle of wine on the way home. She said not only did Mary try to get someone to fix her tire, she directed traffic around her stranded car. Later when the tire was fixed, one of Mary's customers offered to follow her home.
Questioned by someone in the audience how much money they needed to get started, Jacob Wright said that was one of the reasons for that day's meeting. “To do the pre-development it's going to cost $300,000. Betsy and Nancy have raised a substantial amount of money to date. To really kick it off will require $150,000. -And frankly, and to be direct, if it doesn't happen in the next 45 days there's a real danger the project will not happen, mainly due to deadlines with New York State.
He said the purpose of the meeting was to let the community know the project “is very doable...but there's a very real chance it doesn't happen.
Both Betsy and Nancy said they welcome any and all investments and thanked the 40 or so that afternoon for coming to hear about their plans. Nancy can be reached at 518 962-2227 and Betsy at 518 523-9480.