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Barbara Rice talks about her new position as Executive Director of the Adirondack Park Agency

Adirondack Park Agency headquarters
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Adirondack Park Agency headquarters (file)

The Adirondack Park Agency Board on Thursday unanimously approved Governor Kathy Hochul’s recommendation of Barbara Rice to serve as Executive Director of the agency. Rice has had a long career in public service. She was a Franklin County legislator and was its first woman chair. She served on the Adirondack Park Agency board from 2016 to 2018. She most recently worked as Assistant Secretary for Economic Development in the governor’s office where her priorities included expansion of broadband and supervising Olympic Regional Development Authority capital projects in preparation for the 2023 World University Games. Rice tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradly she is honored that the governor recommended her and grateful for the board’s approval.

This is such a thrilling and exciting opportunity for me. I obviously have been living away from the Park for a little bit. I grew up in Saranac Lake, born and raised there and my heart is always there. During my time in the Executive Chamber as Assistant Secretary for Economic Development I did have the opportunity to work very closely with the Energy and Environment staff. You know they tended to pull me in on any issues that came up around the Adirondack Park just because they knew I was a local and had familiarity with that. So I think when this opportunity, when I found out about it, I saw it as both a great move for me in terms of being able to live back in the Adirondack Park, in the North Country, and to continue to work on many of the issues that I worked on while I was assistant secretary. But I'd done almost four years in the executive chamber. I was just ready for a change and ready to be able to really focus on an area that I love.

Barb Rice as you move into leading the APA what do you think the agency's main concern is right now as you take the reins?

Sure. You know I don't know if I can tell you what the main concern is. I think there are lots of things that, you know, we'll be working on that are priorities and that are issues that the agency is facing. And I think I'll probably start with a real listening tour, getting up to speed on agency issues and ongoing priorities. I'm really looking forward to meeting with the board members, some of whom I served with and know well, and the staff and getting briefed on what they're working on, what their suggestions are, what their ideas and recommendations are. So I can't necessarily answer that one question for you right at this point. In terms of the things that I think are obviously priorities and things that I'm interested in are the issues around housing. You know that is obviously something that is really important and it's an issue that is definitely something that communities and community members are very concerned about. I think there's a lot of opportunity from the agency's standpoint to work on some of the public infrastructure needs and to address some of that by moving some development from more resource sensitive land classifications to hamlet. I think this would allow us to maybe build higher density affordable housing. And that is something that, you know, when I was working in economic development obviously it's such a great need. And it's something that we're hearing across the state but I think it's really even more amplified in the Adirondack Park. So that's really of interest to me. Another thing that I think I'm really ready to kind of dig into in my new role is to continue to work on telecommunications, cellular service and expanding on the progress that the Park Agency has already achieved over the last few years. You know they have issued I think a large number of permits for towers. But I think we can really take a look at the cellular task force report. That was something that I was intimately involved with when I was in the executive chamber. There's a lot of information and data in there specific to the Adirondack Park and the Catskills. But one of the things that I think would be very helpful to take a look at is the drive testing data. We did a lot of drive testing to identify gaps in cellular service in the Park. And I think that we can use that and come up with some really innovative solutions like small cell to help close these gaps and to do this in a way that will have the least amount of impact on the environment. So that's an area of particular interest for me.

Barb Rice, the budget for the APA, some people have said that the agency has been one of the state agencies chronically underfunded. Is that something you are planning to also address particularly with your background in fiscal areas, economic development and things like that?

Obviously another one of my priorities will be to kind of dig down and familiarize myself with the budget. You know I really haven't had that opportunity yet. But I do think that under Governor Hochul we have a lot of opportunity with her. She has obviously a strong record on the environment. She's no stranger to the Adirondacks. She's very supportive of the Park Agency and recognizes the Adirondack Park as one of the state's most valuable resources. And you know she will leverage the Environmental Protection Fund to invest in preserving the Adirondacks for New Yorkers for generations to come. One thing that is kind of exciting for me that is in the budget and if it's approved will be a great project is building a new APA headquarters. So that if the budget is approved would not only very needed, believe me because I've been in that building as a member of the board, but very exciting in terms of being able to build a, you know, show really innovative, environmentally sound green building and design for office complexes. And I think that will be a great project once the budget is approved and hopefully that is in there in April. So I'm really excited about that and looking forward to that. You know the other thing about that is that it also would kind of coincide, if we get to go ahead on it, with the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the APA Act. So I think those two things, a new building, 50th anniversary, those are really exciting things. But in terms of really granular detail on the budget I haven't had the opportunity to sit down and take a look at it at this point.

Barb, some people are pointing to your background in economic development, your fiscal background and are a little bit concerned that you don't have as much of an environmental background. How do you respond and what is your background in environmental priorities and environmental issues?

From my standpoint and from the work I've done throughout my career I don't see this complete separation between economic development and the environment. I feel those two things go hand in hand. They are not opposing issues. And basically good sound land use planning is essential to economic development. And that's something that I've been working on pretty much throughout my whole career. Whether it was when I was with local government, with the village of Saranac Lake, in my role as a legislator, and obviously something that I dealt with and had the experience with in my role as a commissioner on the Park Agency Board. So moving forward obviously I will continue to use that experience and understanding in my new role as executive director,

I know at least the Adirondack Council has, I don't have the exact quote, but they have raised some concern about your economic development background as opposed to your environmental background.

Yeah. You know I think what's important is for me to meet with those groups and get to know them. And to make sure that they understand where I'm coming from. So ultimately it's really about communication and making sure that we're communicating and collaborating in the right ways.

APA spokesman Keith McKeever briefly interjects:

I think that Barb, she's got a wealth of local government experience and it's going to be really important moving forward especially with the $4 billion bond act out there. She's going to be able to really help with her experience to make sure that communities have a good opportunity to seize upon that bond act so that we could really address water infrastructure needs and public infrastructure needs within our communities. And the Adirondack Park Agency Act It states in our mission that we're supposed to focus on channeling growth to where it's most appropriate. And Barb's local government experience and her experience with economic development and understanding how to use community development funding is going to be really important moving forward and addressing those really critical needs for small communities in the Adirondacks. And ultimately by channeling growth where it's most appropriate and where the land can sustain it the best we're going to continue to prevent the sprawl of development and really protect open space.

Barbara Rice continues.

And I'm looking forward to working with all the stakeholders, you know, local government, the environmental advocates. And I can tell you that also in my work in the chamber I often met with them. So I am familiar with the advocates. I've met with them. I will want to take time to really sit down and meet with them as well to find out what their priorities are, what they're thinking about, what their ideas are. That's all going to be part of my listening tour and getting up to speed on everything and anything that I'll be working on in my role as executive director.

Well, Barb Rice you're not coming into this totally blind. You were on the board. You left in 2018, correct?

Correct. Yes. That experience was wonderful and it will help me and help to guide me in my new role. But I'm going to have a lot of learning to do and listening to do, as I said before, to really get up to speed and to hear what the major priorities and issues are from both the staff, the board, stakeholders, local government. I mean there's just a lot there. I'm very excited.

Barbara Rice officially begins her new job as executive director of the Adirondack Park Agency on March 8th.  She replaces Terry Martino, who announced her retirement after 12 years in January.

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