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Saranac Lake mayor Clyde Rabideau talks about Cedar Ridge's design for a proposed North Country Community College Welcome Center at a planning board meeting. Photo: Chris Knight, courtesy <em>Adirondack Daily Enterprise</em>
Saranac Lake mayor Clyde Rabideau talks about Cedar Ridge's design for a proposed North Country Community College Welcome Center at a planning board meeting. Photo: Chris Knight, courtesy Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Saranac Lake mayor's role in "Welcome Center" questioned

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North Country Community College and the mayor of Saranac Lake have faced some tough questions over their plan to partner on a Welcome Center for the college's Saranac Lake campus.

The marriage of one of the village's biggest institutions with its most prominent and outspoken politician, developer Clyde Rabideau, has raised some eyebrows in the community and sparked questions from county politicians. The project has also faced its share of scrutiny from the village's Planning Board. Chris Knight reports.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

College officials have said the two-story, 4,200-square foot Welcome Center will serve as an eye-catching gateway to the Saranac Lake campus. It would also provide a “one-stop shop” for student services, like admissions and financial aid.

The college has pitched its plan for the Welcome Center with Cedar Ridge Holdings, a real estate development company owned by Clyde Rabideau, the village’s mayor.

Steve Tyrell is president of the college.

 “The mayor is involved in a commercial business that includes development work and approached the college on a project, and we’ve been walking this one through,” he said.

Rabideau’s company is under contract to buy the properties where the facility would be built. It would then sell them to the college.

When it was announced in June, Rabideau acknowledged he expected questions about his involvement in the Welcome Center. He said in a press release he would recuse himself from any village involvement and “exceed all that is required of us.”

Until he was asked to earlier this month, Rabideau hasn't attended any of the planning board's meetings on the Welcome Center. When it came up at a meeting of the village Board of Trustees, Rabideau left the room.

“I think he’s even tried to keep some distance from the college and has another colleague in Cedar Ridge Holdings that’s been working with the college diligently on the project,” Tyrell said.

Rabideau has stayed out of the public eye on the Welcome Center, but he's still been weighing in on it from the sidelines, based on a series of emails obtained from the village through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In late July, Rabideau sent a three-page email to the village’s community development director and planning board chairwoman, pushing for a conditional approval of the project and analyzing some of the thorny issues surrounding its review. In another one-line message, Rabideau said he was unwilling to compromise further on the design of the Welcome Center to “please the vanities of certain planning board members.” He’s appointed three of the five current members of the board.

When asked about those emails last month, Rabideau declined to speak on tape but said there was only one email of any substance, and that it was limited in scope and "speaks for itself." He also said he was within his rights as a developer to weigh in.

Rabideau has since declined to speak at all about the Welcome Center project, saying his company policy prohibits discussion of its customers' business beyond the limited statements he's made so far.

 “I think he’s been walking a tricky line,” said Saranac Lake Planning Board Chairwoman Leslie Karasin. “But I think he’s been doing it with a great deal of sensitivity to how to be responsible about it and how to not cross the line, how not to exert any inappropriate influence.”

“I think he’s done all the appropriate things he should do to maintain that separation between his role as developer and his right as a private developer,” Tyrell said.

Still, questions about the project – and the arrangement between the college and Rabideau – continue to swirl.

 “I and others are very concerned about what’s happened between the president and the administration of the college and (Rabideau’s) construction company.”

Speaking earlier this month at a meeting of the Franklin County legislature in Malone, Legislator Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake said he’s not opposed to Rabideau’s company building the Welcome Center.

"My issue is with the administration for putting something that has the appearance of something wrong, the smell of something wrong, and not letting it go out to public bid," Maroun said.

When the Welcome Center plan was announced, Steve Tyrell said the college wouldn't have to put the construction out to public bid because it planned to buy a "turnkey" facility, one that's ready to move into.

In late August, the college foundation voted to buy the properties for the project. Members of the college's Board of Trustees made it clear at the time that they felt construction of the building should be put out to public bid, not just given to Rabideau’s company.

"We have a choice on whether we bid the project or not, but we’ve decided we’re going to bid it," Tyrell said Thursday. "We think the public has communicated to us that they would like to see this happen and we’re interested in being responsive to the feedback we get.”

Just how the roughly $1 million project will be paid for has yet to be determined.

The project’s fate with the village planning board also remains up in the air. An initial site plan for the Welcome Center was rejected earlier this month. A revised proposal is expected to be presented at the board’s meeting Wednesday night.

Shaun Kittle of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise provided the recorded audio of Paul Maroun's statements included in this story.

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