Paul Smith’s College president: Hotel Saranac is a challenge

PAUL SMITHS – Paul Smith’s College President John Mills wishes the Roedel family well as they try to revive the Hotel Saranac, but he added that in his experience, it’s a hard place to make money.

“I’m happy if the hotel comes back,” Mills said Thursday in an interview at the college. “Then I won’t get hate mail anymore.”

For 45 years, including the beginning of Mills’ tenure, the college owned and ran the 86-year-old hotel that looms amid downtown Saranac Lake. The school’s culinary and hospitality management students trained there, helping staff its restaurant, pub, gift shop, banquet rooms and at one point a bakery. In 2007, however, the school sold the hotel to the Arora family, which recently agreed to sell it to the New Hampshire-based Roedel Companies.

The hotel’s customer base has largely dried up under the Aroras, and the Roedels’ plan to renovate and revive it has been widely welcomed in the community.

The Roedels say they expect the purchase and restoration to cost $13 million. They’ve applied to the state to cover $5 million of that with economic development grants.

Mills said that request for taxpayer funding of a private enterprise “astounds” him.

“It bothers me tremendously,” he said. “On the other side of the coin, the center of the town is obviously not doing well without something to draw people in besides the retail businesses.

“I hope they’re successful,” he said. “But it will be challenging.”

Part of the challenge has to do with the facility itself, built in 1927.

“It’s a building that was built with load-bearing walls that don’t allow for very – that’s why the cost for renovation is huge,” Mills said. “Of course, it’s deteriorated in the last few years dramatically.”

It also has to do with the hotel’s lack of modern amenities like a pool and an exercise room to attract overnight customers.

“I don’t know what they’re planning in the renovations, but it has to become more resort-like,” Mills said. “First thing I ask: ‘What’s the exercise room?’ right? ‘When’s it open?’ I know from my own family, if you’ve got kids, first thing you’re going to ask: ‘Is there a pool?’ Right? If you’re traveling with kids, you’re going to have to have those amenities, and if you don’t have them, the kids aren’t happy.

“So if the business plan indicates enough business travel, it works. But you’ve got to have an occupancy rate because food and beverage is not going to pay the bills.

“Hotels with restaurants and bars only make it with heads in beds. Our occupancy rate was over and around 40 percent. You’re not going to make it at 40 percent.

“And to be honest with you – I don’t mind saying this – I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, the community supported the hotel.’ They did not – in the sense that The Belvedere (a Saranac Lake restaurant) would be packed on a Friday night at $9.99 a plate, and our students were trying to put out – we’re not going to teach them low end; we’re going to teach them high end – and so you have $14 and $15 entrees, and our restaurant would be empty.”

A regular hotelier would not be hindered by Paul Smith’s dilemma of being a college first, a business second.

“In April, when all of Saranac Lake shuts down for two weeks, we’re not shut down,” Mills said. “We’ve got students. We’re operating with no revenue.” In summer, the busiest time for Adirondack tourism, the student staff was away, “and again, at Christmas, we’d have to hire extra staff because students went home. So our cost structure as an academic training facility did not match the economy of the region. That was always a challenge, but the real factor was, we were operating with a restaurant that was trying to be – and a facility that was – above average, because we’re not training our students to be average. We’re Lake Wobegon.

“And the biggest problem: All of that could have been done if you had the heads in the beds, but we never could get the occupancy rate.”

Mills said the Roedels haven’t reached out to him, although Chris LaBarge has regarding a 90-room hotel he plans to build on the shore of Lake Flower in Saranac Lake.

“I really wish them well,” Mills said of the Roedels, “and I hope it works, because the village needs it.”

Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or