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EYE ON BUSINESS: ‘Thank God for the Malone bus’

Hospitality businesses employ more long-distance commuters as more Lake Placid housing is converted to short-term rentals

November 30, 2018
By GRIFFIN KELLY - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Misty and David Cayea got off the 2 p.m. bus from Malone in Lake Placid. Their car was in the shop. They walked the short distance from the municipal parking lot to the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery on Mirror Lake Drive to start their shifts in the kitchen.

David cooked while Misty expedited the food orders. In a couple of hours, they needed to catch the 11:30 p.m. bus back to Malone. It costs $4 each way.

"We wind up getting home at about 1 a.m. and sometimes 2 a.m. during bad snowstorms," Misty said. "You go to sleep around 3 or 4 in the morning, so it can really mess with your sleep pattern."

Article Photos

News photo — Griffin Kelly
Misty Cayea expedites food at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery. She, her husband David Cayea and their friend Robert Nason commute from Malone, more than an hour each way, to work in the kitchen. They said they would like to live closer to Lake Placid if they had the opportunity.

Misty said the drive can be pretty, especially in the fall or when she sees a moose, but if she had the opportunity to live closer to work, she would. This is a sentiment many employers and workers in Lake Placid share.

"I wouldn't want to be in the village, but right outside," Misty said. "A place where our dogs can run around and we're a little secluded."

Chris Ericson has owned and operated the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery for more than 20 years, but only in the last three did he start to notice that the number of local employees was decreasing. General Manager Josh Spanburgh said about 15 percent of the pub's staff travels from Malone, which is more than an hour-long drive north.

The proportion is higher in the pub's kitchen, where five of 18 staff members - 28 percent - commute from Malone, many on the Franklin County Public Transportation bus.

"Thank God for the Malone bus," Ericson and Spanburgh both said.

Though the bus is great for bringing employees to and from work, it can be restricting. The pub used to have a late-night menu on Fridays and Saturdays, and stay open until midnight.

"We can't do that anymore because they'd miss the bus," Ericson said. "It affects our schedule. It affects our business."

Last winter was particularly cold and had heavy snowfall. Spanburgh said there were at least four times employees couldn't make it to work because the buses couldn't operate. If the buses are delayed, that would force other employees to stay late.

"If you've ever worked in the customer service business, you know you work really hard," Spanburgh said. "And like everyone else, you want to leave when you're supposed to leave."

If someone's car breaks down or a bus is delayed, Ericson said someone at the pub will try to help out, whether that means giving that person a ride or jump-starting his or her car. It's a friendly thing to do, but it also takes even more people away from the pub for a period.

"If Josh has to go pick up someone in Upper Jay," Ericson said, "then Josh isn't doing what he's supposed to be doing here, either."

The Cayeas and another kitchen worker at the pub, Robert Nason, tend to carpool to work. Whoever is driving that day charges the same amount as a bus fare for gas. Driving their own cars has ups and downs. It can be quicker; they don't have to make all the stops the bus does. They can also smoke cigarettes on the way to work. However, in a place like the Adirondacks, winter can take a heavy toll on a car.

Nason said he pays $80 a week for gas, and David said he pays $100. They also frequently change their cars' oil because of all the back-and-forth driving. Sometimes they have to drive through fresh snow on the way back to Malone.

"We're the plow those nights," David said.

There's also the need for snow tires or studded ones, which can cost about $800.

"If you don't have those, you can go off the road or wind up in a ditch," Nason said.

David and Nason said the bus is nice because they don't have to worry about extra costs or being at the wheel, but sometimes the drivers don't seem the safest.

"There's one driver who will just go 70 mph all the way from Malone to Lake Placid," Nason said. "There's been so many times where the bus has been clearly past the rumble strips in the center of the road."

At the High Peaks Resort at the corner of Main Street and Saranac Avenue, Sales and Marketing Director Lori Fitzgerald said more than half of the hotel's staff commutes to work. Some of those workers are coming from neighboring towns like Saranac Lake or Wilmington, but others come from Malone, just like at the pub. Most of the commuters work jobs such as dishwasher or housekeeper, not the most lucrative positions, Fitzgerald said.

The High Peaks Resort also has many employees who take a bus to work. Getting to work is easy enough, Fitzgerald said, but getting back can be a little tough.

"We sometimes run into problems when an employee is trying to get home," she said. "If they get off a late shift and the bus is no longer running, usually one of the managers will give them a ride."

Fitzgerald said driving long distance might come up when an employee is leaving his or her position at the hotel, but it's not a day-to-day topic.

"Commuting is a little bit of a problem," she said, "but everybody else in the village is struggling with it, too."

In an interview earlier this year at the Elderwood of Uihlein nursing home, Regional Director of Operations Marc Walker said plenty of the certified registered nurses on staff actually live in the Capital Region or western New York. None of these people are commuting regularly; instead, Elderwood will provide them temporary housing close to work.

"Two of our CNAs are coming from a distance out in Potsdam, so we actually put them up in a hotel," Walker said in April.

CNA is also not a high-paying job, but it calls for plenty of work: cleaning, feeding and providing medical care to people. Starting salary is around $14 per hour at Elderwood, which struggles to compete for labor when a good restaurant server in Lake Placid can make more than that just in tips.

Walker also said Elderwood is working to establish employee living quarters at each of its facilities so long commutes aren't a regular thing.

"For every property that we own, we're looking at modular homes to be constructed for temporary housing," he said. "It would allow those who come here from Albany, Saratoga, Rochester, Syracuse to transition into the home for three to six months until they find something that's better."

Like many issues facing Lake Placid today, employees having to commute from places like Malone or Plattsburgh is a result of the lack of affordable housing in the village, Ericson said.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that (more long-distance commuting) happened when Airbnbs and second-home rentals really took off," he said. "Suddenly people realized they could rent their properties for 40 weekends out of the year and make more money than renting it 52 weeks to employees. Certainly there's a lot less wear and tear on your property when renting it 80 days of the year versus 365."

Ericson and Spanburgh said they have lost plenty of employees because the drive was too long and people couldn't afford to live closer to work.

"It doesn't make sense for them to have to work two or three hours a week just to pay for their gas," Ericson said. "People could work closer to home and make less money but net more because they're not spending the time traveling. We've had that a lot, and that's not unique to the pub - it happens at every single place in Lake Placid. All the other business that I've talked to have said they've lost employees because those folks can't afford to live around the corner like they used to."

Ericson said that if Malone created more hospitality-based businesses, many employers in Lake Placid would lose their workers. Since much of Lake Placid's economy is based on hotels and restaurants, that could be a major blow.

Pub & Brewery Chief Operations Officer Stephen Kroha suggested putting a cap on the number of days a person can rent out a home to vacationers.

"A lot of places out west," he said, "you have 100 or however many days to rent out your apartment, and then the rest of it has to be longer term. I have a rental right down the road, and it's not just for the restaurant business. I've had State Police in there for the last four years. There's nowhere to rent from. One of them moves away, and the next one is ready to come in, which is great."

Ericson said he would like to see more affordable housing in the village, but he admits there are negative possibilities to keep in mind.

"Maybe the (2023 Winter World University Games) are going to lead to some dorm or housing construction that then could be turned into rent-controlled housing that is tied to local service area employment or something along those lines," he said. "Now the caveat, of course, is that you've just created the biggest fraternity house in town. So, you know, it's not without its pitfalls, having a 200-room apartment complex."

Despite the long travel time, money for car repairs and irritated sleep cycles, Misty, David and Robert said they are all loyal to their positions at the pub.

"We probably could work someplace else, but I think our co-workers are so tight that it keeps us all together," David said.

"We all work together and got each other's backs," Misty added.



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