College president does a disservice

I read the interview Pete Crowley conducted with Paul Smith’s College President John Mills and felt compelled to address Mr. Mills’ comments.

His stated concern that the Roedel Companies will face a great challenge reviving the hotel astounds me. Of course it will be challenging. Business is challenging. But the difference between the Roedel Companies and Paul Smith’s College under Dr. Mills’ leadership is competency and experience. The Roedel Companies currently own and operate numerous profitable properties throughout the eastern United States. They understand their market and the concept of core competency. Dr. Mills seems to only understand vertical integration.

Under Dr. Mills, Paul Smith’s College has maintained a monopoly over Saranac Lake’s education and service economy, much to the detriment of our residents. I have long felt that North Country Community College would be a much better choice of college to offer hospitality and culinary programs for local residents to earn degrees than Paul Smith’s College. Students who borrow $88,000 to pay tuition at Paul Smith’s find that they must leave the area to pay back their college loans. This figure does not account for housing and meal plans that can drive that debt much higher, further burdening graduates of a technical school with entry-level salaries in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range. The website estimates graduates of Paul Smith’s will need a post-graduation salary of $135,754.28 in order to afford repayment of their education loans. Compared to the tuition at NCCC (with a transfer and continuation of studies at a four-year SUNY school like Potsdam), students would be looking at less than $25,000 in education debt. Far more of these graduates would be likely to stay in the North Country and contribute to our economy.

Every person to whom I have suggested this scenario to has had the same response: “Paul Smith’s College would never let it happen.” I do not understand how they even have a say in the matter, as there are different individuals who run these colleges. Protecting each other’s position seems to be more important than the big picture, that being the future of students’ financial well-being and this area’s ability to compete by having a well-educated labor pool.

Dr. Mills stated in his interview that the community of Saranac Lake did not support the hotel and that residents would prefer “low end” establishments like The Belvedere at $9.99 a plate. Well, I have enjoyed many meals at The Belvedere, and their price point is not $9.99. It is more like the $14-to-$15 “high end” that he states is required to be “above average.” Maybe the reason the restaurant was empty was because the food that was prepared by the hotel was not on par with the quality of food in your “low end” competitor.

I personally took my family to the A.P. Smith Restaurant when I was in the process of purchasing my Eat ‘n’ Meet Grill back in 2006, and we ordered osso bucco (veal shanks) that had not been properly braised, and therefore were tough and inedible. We had the lot of them wrapped to go and took them home and cooked them slowly for three additional hours, and they were delicious. To me, this was inexcusable for a culinary school to pass off as acceptable.

Perhaps the leadership of the school was more interested in meal plans and dorm fees than proper education of its students. If the college would have concentrated on its core competency – educating food service professionals and exploiting itself through marketing of this concept – perhaps it would receive the support of the community that is so vital to a viable business.

Dr. Mills has served as past president of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, and during his tenure the homepage of the college contained a link to Lake Placid with no link to any Saranac Lake website, including its chamber of commerce. This is an example of Dr. Mills’ unilateral approach to achieve vertical integration of his influence.

To be fair, the college has since added a link to Saranac Lake. Progress.

Dr. Mills expressed astonishment that the Roedel Companies have requested taxpayer funding of a private enterprise. What is the percentage of ex-military students who matriculate at Paul Smith’s College? And have you not sought to actively market the college to this emerging market of war veterans and their eligible dependents? Seems like low-hanging fruit on the taxpayer tree. Not to mention that Paul Smith’s operates as a tax-exempt entity, which certainly diminishes its economic value to local municipalities.

It seems that Dr. Mills is running a college from inside a glass bubble of self-righteousness and cronyism, and as the saying goes, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. I am not at all surprised that the Roedels have not reached out to you, John. Those who can, do …

John Vargo lives in Saranac Lake, where he is the owner and chef of Eat ‘n’ Meet Grill.