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December 2011

Live Here, Work Here

Insider advice on how to make it happen

Illustration by Rob Dunlavey

If everyone who fantasized about extending his or her Adirondack vacation indefinitely followed through on the daydream, the park would be bulging at the Blue Line. The latest census figures show that hasn’t been the case; many North Country communities lost population in re­cent decades, and those who do move here are often retirees. One of the biggest barriers to attracting working-age year-rounders is that the park’s economic landscape—in particular, the availability of good jobs—is not nearly as attractive as its vistas.

There’s no sugarcoating it: earning a buck in the Adirondacks is challenging. Always has been, probably always will be. But for those who believe there’s more to life than the fattest paycheck or the most valuable stock options, living here can pay meaningful dividends.

In fact, the job market in the Adirondacks is no bleaker than in many other regions, especially if you have the right attitude. Those who have realized the goal say the keys are flexibility and creativity about the job search, and a willingness to accept that the ideal work/life scenario may take time to materialize. For some, this may mean telecommuting. For others, it’s starting a small—or large—business. And yes, it’s even possible to find great jobs in the park, or within a reasonable commute. The following are a few strategies to consider, along with advice from people who have used them successfully.

Find a Job
If you’re looking for work in the Adirondacks, it helps to be in a field that’s in demand. Topping that list would likely be the health-care profession. Adirondack Health (formerly Adirondack Medical Center) is the biggest private employer here, with a full-time staff of more than 900 people at 10 facilities. As of this writing, the Saranac Lake–based nonprofit had 32 advertised full-time non-physician openings, including jobs for nurses, clerical staff and case managers. Doctors—both primary care and specialists—physician assistants and nurse practitioners are always needed. Opportunities also exist at smaller hospitals in Elizabethtown, Star Lake and Ticonderoga, and at health centers, nursing homes and private practices throughout the park.

The case for recruiting physicians to the rural North Country hasn’t been helped by movie and television storylines about big-city docs forced to work in the boonies—think Northern Exposure. In the real world, doctors who enjoy the outdoors or a less cutthroat work environment often find practicing in the Adirondacks a refreshing change—and that the locals aren’t nearly as wacky as Hollywood would have you believe.

Anthony Dowidowicz was a physician in New York City when he visited Saranac Lake in 2009 on a locum tenens assignment at Adirondack Medical Center (AMC). His first impression, he says, was, “Wow, this place is pretty nice.” He and his partner, Edward DeLeon, an architect, had become disenchanted with some aspects of Manhattan life, so he was receptive when the hospital offered him a permanent position as the associate director of emergency medicine.

Since moving to Saranac Lake in January 2010, Dowido­wicz has found he misses city living far less than he’d expected. “I don’t feel at all isolated,” he says. “I was surprised by how interesting and sophisticated people were. I guess we were New York snobs.” Although he took a pay cut to move here, he says the lower real-estate prices more than compensate; he was able to buy a former cure cottage with a yard for far less than a small apartment would cost in Manhattan. He’s also happier with his job at the hospital. Unlike bigger markets, Adirondack Health doesn’t have a nearby competitor, meaning, he says, the priority is what’s best for the community rather than the bottom line.

Obviously, tourism is another major sector of the Adirondack economy, and many residents find at least seasonal employment in hotels, restaurants, retail and outdoor recreation, often piecing together two or more jobs over the course of the year. The construction trades and real-estate business are heavily reliant on the second-home market here, which has taken a serious hit during the economic downturn but hasn’t dried up completely.

Despite budget cuts, the public sector is still a major source of employment in the park, through school districts, town and county governments, correctional facilities and agencies like the Department of Environmental Conservation and Adirondack Park Agency. The single largest employer within the Blue Line is the state-run Sunmount Developmental Disabilities Services Office, in Tupper Lake, with well over 1,000 workers.

Nonprofits—including museums, advocacy groups and social service organizations—hire another significant chunk of the population at all levels, from $12-an-hour direct-care positions assisting the elderly and disabled to executives with salaries approaching six figures.

Telecommute
With high-speed Internet and cell phone service expanding within the Blue Line, telecommuting is becoming one of the most attractive options for people who want to live and work here. President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 into law last year, requiring federal agencies to identify and encourage telecommuting opportunities within their workforces. As gas prices rise and technology makes telework a viable op­tion for more people, an increasing number of employers are likely to follow suit. TechCast, a “virtual think tank” at George Washington University, in Washington DC, released a forecast earlier this year predicting that the number of teleworkers will increase from today’s four percent to as much as 30 percent by 2019.

Many Adirondack communities see telecommuters as their best hope for drawing new working families to the area. Clarkson University, in Potsdam, launched the Adirondack Initiative for Wired Work in 2009 to promote telework and entrepreneurial ventures in the park. It maintains a business center in Sar­anac Lake and holds a wired-work conference in Potsdam each fall. In 2009 Clarkson surveyed 600 adults who live in or visit the park. Forty-five percent of the respondents said they would consider living in the Adirondacks year-round or for an extended season if telecommuting were an option for them.

Jennifer VanBenschoten and her husband, Tom, of Jay, are typical of the people the Clarkson initiative aims to attract: a young couple who fell in love with the area while going to college here. VanBenschoten, who is now 37, attended SUNY–Platts­burgh; Tom studied at Paul Smith’s College. Both grew up in New Jersey, but after graduation they wanted to stay in the Adirondacks. “Part of it was the people. They just seemed to be much nicer than in the city,” she says. “We like to hike and fish, and we like having that right in our backyard.”

Tom was hired at the Lake Placid water-treatment facility, but Jennifer had a harder time finding work that paid well. When she got pregnant, in 2007, her salary wasn’t high enough to offset the expense of child care. She began telecommuting as a freelance beading “expert” for the website About.com, which didn’t pay well but allowed her to stay home with her son. It also led, unexpectedly, to her dream job, a full-time telecommuting position as editor of an online beading magazine with a good salary and full benefits. “I work for a company that I love and it’s a much better job than I could get here,” she says. She cautions those who would like to telecommute not to be fooled by “the idea that working from home means that you don’t work as hard as you would if you were in a regular office. While it’s true that I get to work in my pajamas if I want to or need to, I still have the same deadlines, goals and job requirements as my coworkers who go into the office every day.”

Technology, unsurprisingly, is one of the most promising fields for wannabe telecommuters. Forty percent of the global staff of IBM, for example, works remotely—at least a handful of them from the Adirondacks. And they aren’t all software engineers.

Susan Therio, a 54-year-old from Wevertown, has telecommuted as the manager of a sales-related group at IBM for five years. She and her husband, Mike, lived in Columbia County but had a camp in Indian Lake where they planned to eventually retire. One day Susan was perusing the Glens Falls Post-Star when she saw a job listing for a school counselor position—Mike’s field—in the area. She suggested he apply. When he got the job, she was faced with a common Adirondack dilemma: being the trailing spouse.

She was already working for IBM, commuting to the Poughkeepsie campus. It took nearly a year—during which she commuted to her old job—to find a position in another division in the company that both interested her and allowed for telecommuting. At first, she says, “I was very apprehensive about working from home. I thought it would be career-limiting. It has turned out to be the opposite. IBM is such a huge company, I didn’t realize the opportunities that were available.”

Susan keeps regular hours and she dresses for work, part of the self-disciplined personality she says is a must for those considering telecommuting. Another issue is isolation. “You have to be cut from a certain cloth. I’m very connected through email and phone calls, and I have all the human interaction I need. It works for me but it’s hard for some people.” Her most important advice for people considering tele­commuting is to keep their skills sharp to stay competitive. “Technology is moving so quickly, and living in the Adirondacks we’re shielded from a lot of it,” she says. One way she stays on top of it is through online classes, for both career and personal development.

Academia may not spring to mind as a field rife with tele­commuting opportunities, but those involved in independent research rather than teaching—such as Richard Brandt, 51, an atmospheric scientist who studies the climate of polar regions—make it work. Brandt’s employer is the University of Washington in Seattle, but he’s based out of his home in Vermontville. He also rents an office at Paul Smith’s College, where he is considered a visiting scientist.

Brandt did his postgraduate work in Seattle. But when he was offered the research position, which allows him to live anywhere, he and his wife, Ellen Beberman, knew they couldn’t afford the life­style they envisioned if they stayed in the Pacific Northwest. They wanted to buy some land where they could homestead—Beberman grows vegetables and manages the farmers’ mar­ket at the Wild Center, in Tupper Lake—and be close to skiing. Brandt grew up in Canton, where his parents still live, which made the Adirondacks especially attractive. “We bought 100 acres in Vermontville for $39,000. In Seattle, a one-bedroom house costs $390,000,” he says. “[On my salary] I would be poor in a city.”

Brandt spends about 20 to 30 percent of his time traveling for fieldwork, conferences or meetings, and the rest of the time enjoys his bicycle commute to Paul Smiths, where he can log onto his university’s system to do computer modeling. “There are no traffic lights between here and work,” he says.

The trade-off for living far away from the University of Washington is that he’s had to choose a mid-level career path, but, he says, “You don’t regret it a bit. It’s just a privilege to live in the Adirondacks.”

Freelancing from home is another alternative. That’s the route Brad Caldwell, a mechanical engineer, took 19 years ago, when he and his long-distance girlfriend—now his wife—decided to put an end to a decade of shuttling between the Adirondacks and the Buffalo area. He has an office at his home in Westport and says tech­nology has never been an issue. “We’re out in the middle of no­where and we have DSL.”

In western New York, Caldwell had a job at the toy giant Fisher-Price, and toy de­signers are still among his biggest clients. “I definitely sacrificed fi­nancially [by moving here],” the 55-year-old admits. “I’d probably be making double if I’d stayed. But I’m doing the work I love, so I can’t complain.” It helps that his wife, a teacher, has health insurance.

Start a Business
Although employment statistics in the Adirondacks are frustratingly hard to come by—and one of the barriers to studying and im­proving local econo­mies—­it’s fair to say that one of the big­gest job sources here is small business, which could include anything from plumbing to operating a bed-and-breakfast. As Garry Douglas, president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council (an initative launched by Governor Cuomo this summer), told North Country Public Radio in September, “In a place like Long Lake, helping a new business get started that creates two or three new jobs is as important to that community as a venture with 100 new jobs is in a lot of other com­munities.”

He could have been speaking about Susan Rohrey, who moved to the Adirondacks in 2004, five years after her husband, Mike Small, decided to open his medical practice in the area. Rohrey, who is 57, had a thriving consulting business in New Jersey, where the couple had been living, and was reluctant to move prematurely to what she had thought would be their retirement home in Long Lake. But when it became apparent that Small had no intention of returning to New Jersey, she took the opportunity to reinvent herself—a decision she says turned out to be serendipitous. After some unfruitful attempts to apply her consulting skills to the small businesses in her new region, she instead turned her acumen to figuring out what was lacking locally. Good food topped the list. She went back to school, earning an associate’s degree in culinary arts at Paul Smith’s College, and began offering personal chef services to summer residents and vacationers. Within a few years her business blossomed into a full-service catering company called Flavor; she now has a couple of part-time seasonal employees and, for larger events, up to eight other helpers. Her advice for anyone considering starting a small business in the Adirondacks is to make yourself known to your neighbors. “Having local support is huge, even if locals aren’t using your services. For example, caretakers have been great at telling their employers about me,” she says. “I feel strongly about word of mouth.”

Rohrey’s husband took that message to heart in building his North Country practice. Small began with a part-time job at Sunmount, spending two days a week in the Adirondacks and three days at a group practice in New Jersey. “That got kind of tiring,” the 63-year-old says, so in 2001 he started trying to drum up enough business in New York to stay here all the time. Two years ago he quit the state job to focus on his private clients. “Sunmount gave me a toehold in the area,” he says. “I started going around and talking to people. I would go to a doctor’s office and put a card on the reception desk.” More often than not, he says, the doctors would want to talk to him, and he received many referrals through them. He frequently works with students in area schools or sees patients through reciprocal arrangements with other physicians, trading pro bono work for office space; his home study is strictly for paperwork and phone calls.

Although there are other neuropsychiatrists working on the fringes of the park, Small believes he is the only one based within the Blue Line. His rarity has been a boon to his business. “With six million acres of spruce and fir, you’d think, Where’s a neuropsychologist fit in? It turns out there’s room for me and a few more. It’s been very fertile ground.”

Another growing need in the Adirondacks is controlling invasive species. In 2007, Tommy Thomson, 31, and Andrew Lewis, 28, turned their scuba-diving experience and interest in the environment into a successful company, Lake Placid–based Aquatic Invasive Management. Thomson and Lewis, who both attended Paul Smith’s College, met while removing Eurasian watermilfoil for the Upper Saranac Lake Foundation in 2005. After a couple of years of working their way up from divers to dive leaders, the pair had a hunch they could make a viable business out of doing similar invasive-removal work on other Adirondack lakes. Within two years they were up to six contracts per season—including, this year, the Asian clam abatement project on Lake George—and now employ as many as 13 full-time divers from about April to October. Thomson coaches snowboarding at Whiteface in the off-season; Lewis heads to his home state of Virginia, where he works in the electrical trade. Thomson cautions others thinking of opening a business here to study the market and choose something appropriate. “You can’t open a dry cleaners if everyone’s wearing Carhartts,” he says.

But sometimes creating demand takes time, as Jessica Chevalier, 34, discovered when she began growing vegetables on Ledgetop Farm in Crown Point nine years ago. She lived in Connecticut and has family in Vermont. The Green Mountain State has done an excellent job of branding the region’s farm products and encouraging Vermonters to buy local, and she didn’t initially realize that along with the cheaper farmland just across Lake Champlain was a less farm-friendly culture. Although she says it’s improved continually, with the growth of farmers’ markets and supportive groups like the Adirondack Green Circle, based in Saranac Lake, she still finds it a challenging environment for a small organic farmer. “People would say, ‘I can get it way cheaper at Wal-Mart,’” she laments.

This year, with a growing season bookended by torrential rains, has been particularly rough for Chevalier and other local farmers, but she tries to maintain a positive attitude—another essential attribute for the Adirondack entrepreneur. “It’s a beautiful area, and a beautiful farm,” she says. “It can work. It defi­nitely can work.”

Commute to a Population Center
When all else fails in your Adirondack job quest, consider widening your search radius beyond the Blue Line. The park is bordered by small cities and towns, and several larger cities are within a reasonable commute—depending on your definition of reasonable.

Donald Kelly, 62, has commuted daily from his home in Old Forge to his job as an associate professor of physical sciences at Mohawk Valley Community College, in Utica, for 11 years. He considers the drive, slightly over an hour, well worth it. “Anyone who lives in the Adirondacks has to be prepared to do a lot of driving,” he says, regardless of where he or she works.

And Kimberly Lawson, 51, has driven from her Upper Jay home to her job as a union organizer in Burlington and St. Albans, Vermont, several times a week for the last two decades. That’s at least an hour-and-a-half trip each way, including 20 or so minutes on the ferry. However, she points out, “I have friends who live in L.A. who have comparable commutes—but it’s a much shorter distance and it’s sitting in the traffic. I go past horse fields and around the lake.”

Lawson also notes that her house, which she and her husband, Will Kohr, built on a pay-as-you-go plan on land they bought outright in the 1980s, has no mortgage. “We could never have in Vermont what we have here, six and a half acres,” she says. Kohr also commutes about 45 minutes to his job as a nurse at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, in Plattsburgh.

Although she admits she wouldn’t mind a shorter drive, Lawson has grown to like the transition period it provides between her private and professional lives. “I find that by the time I get home most days I’m pretty relaxed because I’ve had all that time to just decompress and leave it behind,” she says. “Similarly … by the time I get to work I have my whole day planned and I may have already been on the phone. I have the perfect cell phone because it stops working in Au Sable. It’s my work phone and I tell people they can call me 24/7, and if you get me, I’m working. So home really is separated from work, and I kind of like that.”

Resources for Telecommuters & Entrepreneurs
Adirondack Economic Development Corporation (518-891-5523; www.aedconline.com) provides small business loans and advice.

Adirondack North Country Association (518-891-6200; www.adirondack.org) supports agriculture, artisans and small business in the region.

Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce (518-798-1761; www.adirondackchamber.org) covers Warren, Washington and northern Saratoga Counties.

The Clarkson University Adirondack Initiative for Wired Work (www.clarkson.edu/adk) offers re­sources for telecommuters and entrepreneurs, including seminars, an annual Forever Wired conference, and a Saranac Lake business center.

Community-Supported Business Start-Ups (315-328-4129; www.csbs-u.org) is a Potsdam-based nonprofit organization that offers microgrants of up to $5,000 to small, local entrepreneurs.

FlexJobs (www.flexjobs.com) lists tele­commuting, freelance and professional part-time job openings nationwide.

North Country Chamber of Commerce (518-563-1000; www.northcountrychamber.com) covers most of the Adirondacks and north to Quebec.

Top Private Adirondack Employers
Four Three of the five top private employers within the Blue Line are in the health-care sector; all five are hiring. There is more diversity among those with 100+ employees, including the Crowne Plaza in Lake Plac­id; Word of Life Fellowship in Schroon Lake; Saratoga Springs­–based Stewarts Shops’ 20 locations parkwide; NYCO Minerals, in Willsboro; Barton Mines, in North River; and American Management Association and the Trudeau Institute, both in Saranac Lake. See company websites and local newspapers for open positions.

1.    Adirondack Health; www.amccares.org
2.    Mountain Lake Services; www.mountainlakeservices.org
3.    International Paper; www.internationalpaper.com
4.    Adirondack Arc; www.adirondackarc.org
5.    North Country Home Services; www.nchs.net

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One Response to “Live Here, Work Here”

  1. Adirondack Life Blog Archive » A Good Year at the IRMA Awards Says:

    [...] Dunlavey received silver for his “richly detailed” and “whimsical” illustrations in “Live Here, Work Here” [...]