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NY National Guard Chaplain Col. Eric Olsen, of Saranac Lake, is an advocate for Homeward Bound Adirondack.
NY National Guard Chaplain Col. Eric Olsen, of Saranac Lake, is an advocate for Homeward Bound Adirondack.

Saranac Lake vet reintegration center struggling

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It was billed as a project that could transform the community and bring hope and healing to veterans and their families.

Two years later, Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake has a different name, no paid staff, little money raised and held only two programs last year.

Organizers of what is now called Homeward Bound Adirondacks, a proposed retreat and reintegration center for veterans and their families, insist the project is still moving forward, although not at the pace they initially hoped.

As Chris Knight reports, fundraising challenges and disputes about the project's direction are largely to blame.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake was developed by a broad-based coalition of community leaders and veteran advocates. It was pitched two years ago as a $30 million hotel and conference center that would host a wide range of counseling and support programs for military personnel and their families.

Supporters said the project would build on Saranac Lake's history as a pioneering health resort, create more than 100 permanent jobs and breathe new life into the local economy.

At the time, organizers like Mike Conway, then-director of the Adiriondack Economic Development Corporation, described Patriot Hills as "transformational."  

"I can tell you quite frankly that a project such as this only comes around once in a lifetime," Conway said.

But two years later, the project, now called Homeward Bound Adirondacks, seems to have lost much of its momentum.

Organizers failed to secure federal funding to jump start the project, and those kinds of Congressional earmarks have now dried up. 

Last July, Susan Waters, the only paid employee Homeward Bound has had to date, resigned as the group's director. She has yet to be replaced. 

Facing a difficult economic climate with no staff, the group has only been able to raise $80,000. It still hasn't found a permanent home, and its board met only twice all of last year.

Bob Ross is president of the Homeward Bound board of directors:

"I completely understand that it doesn't look as far along as the expectations might have been set a couple of years ago," he said "But I don't think that's because the idea has run out of steam or the commitment is not there. I think it's just taken a little longer than we have hoped or expected to raise a sufficient amount of money."

Ross admits that he and other organizers of the project were too focused on the opportunity to get public money. When that didn't come, Patriot Hills shifted its focus to raising money from private donors. But that's been just as difficult because of what Ross described as a "chicken and egg" scenario:

"You need to have enough activity to demonstrate that there's something worthwhile contributing toward, and you have to have enough resources to be able to do meaningful activities."

But other factors have slowed Homeward Bound's progress, including "personality conflicts" within the organization.

Col. Eric Olsen is chaplain for the state Division of Military and Naval Affairs and is a key player in the project.

"We partnered with some agencies that we believed were bringing more to the table and we didn't. We lost our direction a little bit," Olsen said. "Some of the board members wanted to move everything out of Saranac Lake. They wanted to move it to New York City."

Olsen said the project also hasn't seen the groundswell of local political support they hoped for, but he said organizers remain committed to the Saranac Lake area.

Homeward Bound recently became a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, the lack of which Ross believes was a barrier to corporations and foundations that were considering contributions. Olsen said Homeward Bound is expecting some private donations this summer that should allow the organization to hire a staff.

Meanwhile, the organization has several reintegration programs lined up this year. It's also working with Clarkson University to develop a "Reintegration Academy," geared toward getting returning soldiers back in the work force. Ross said that would let Homeward Bound tap into a more sustainable source of funding through the G.I. Bill.

Looking ahead, both Ross and Olsen believe Homeward Bound is now well positioned to move forward.

"Have we stumbled a little bit? No," Olsen said. "But we've not sprinted out of the gate. We're doing a crawl, walk, run. The vision is still there. We've just got to build a bridge to it, and that's happening now."

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