Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson discusses issues the town faces as the Gateway to the Adirondacks
The Town of Keene in Essex County, New York is one of the prime gateways for hikers into the Adirondack High Peaks. The 156-square mile town includes 15 of the Adirondack High Peaks – including the state’s highest, Mount Marcy. The area’s tourism popularity has been growing and creating challenges as more people travel to the region for outdoor recreation. Town of Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson spoke this week with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley about critical partnerships with the state and other agencies.
For the past four or five years we've been experiencing a real increase in the number of hikers visiting the High Peaks and Keene is the home of the High Peaks. So all the issues around where do people park? Where do they find, how do they find trail heads? Where do they go to the bathroom? You know mundane stuff like that. But when it's high numbers it really has an impact. And so we're trying to plan for roadside safety. You know, not having lots of cars parked on the highway. People crossing the street it gets really dangerous. So with the DEC, the town of Keene, Department of Transportation, the past few years we've been working to manage the roadside safety issues in a real concrete way to limit the unsafe parking, keep the safe parking open, adding shuttles to move people so that they don't have to park on the side of the road. And at the same time doing a lot with education. Trying to reach hikers as they plan their hike so they have alternatives in mind if their first choice is parked up. Having front country stewards out along the highway in busy parking lots to help direct people to places where there's parking available so that they don't feel compelled to just illegally park in someone's driveway. And at the same time we're trying to make sure we're providing a safe, enjoyable experience for visitors who come here because part of this influx is novice hikers, people new to hiking, and we want them to have a good safe experience.
What is the population of Keene and your town budget?
We're a big town geographically but our population is from the last census 1,140 people. So our total general fund budget is $1,250,000. And the main roads running through our town is State Route 73. So we don't have authority over the highway. Over 70% of the land in the Town of Keene is state land so we don't have authority over that. The town has a small footprint but we work with the big state partners DEC, DOT, that's the only way we can get things done is to you know, have good partnerships with the state agencies that manage our road, manage our our state land. And, you know, over the past few years we've really worked closely with DEC and DOT to take some immediate short term steps while we plan for bigger, longer steps because the Town of Keene just can't do it on our own.
What is Keene's budget? And how critical is that partnership particularly since this is such a rural area?
Well, we have $0 to spend on managing hikers. You know between taking care of our roads and our water districts and keeping the basic services going the one fortunate thing we have is we we run a shuttle from Marcy Field to the Garden and we charge $10 to ride the shuttle and we charge $10 to park at the Garden. So without that, it would be really difficult for the town to scrape up money to invest in managing such tremendous numbers of visitors and the impact they have. We're too small to invest in the level of management it takes.
As you look at the communities in the Town of Keene, a lot of people are trying to upgrade their infrastructure, what's happening in the communities in the town as they try to deal with that?
I think we're experiencing what everyone is. It's hard to get contractors. It's hard to get materials. It's hard to get things built, maintained. And it's just it's making it hard for us to keep our operation functioning smoothly and up to date.
What about water and streets? I mean, Lake Placid is going through a whole water and street restructuring. How's Keene doing?
Well, we have two water districts and we are struggling to find money to update them. The Department of Health has one of our districts under order to add a well upgrade, all our pump house control equipment. And it could be up to $5 million. So for a water district that's 230 people that's just out of reach. I mean, we have to make hard choices. In the other water district it's smaller projects, but we're taking out a bond and we're going to borrow money to do the project while we look for any state aid available. So it's a backbreaker to do these outsized infrastructure projects on really teeny base of ratepayers. You know two water districts each have, you know, 230 is our bigger district. So it's hard to afford these big infrastructure projects.
With COVID there was a lot of federal money that communities got. Are you getting anything from that at all or are you too small to get it?
Well, our share of that money is in proportion to our scale. So we got $104,000. So we're investing in three water projects. One in each water district and then the construction of a water line to serve a new preschool. That was a good investment for that money. We need the daycare capacity so tremendously that we're using some of our American Rescue Act funds to build the water line to serve that. So we're using the Rescue Act funds to invest in our infrastructure. But again because we're such a small town $104,000 between three water projects, it's appreciated and helpful, but in the big picture it doesn't really solve any problems.
Joe Pete Wilson, you mentioned there's a lot of tourists that have been coming through the pandemic and you're getting more and more coming through now. How are the roads for getting into the town of Keene and staying in the town?
Well, we're on State Route 73 and there's big construction projects on both sides of us. And they're great projects that are really needed. The growing pains this summer are going to be tough. In the long term when they're done it's great. It's really going to make the roadside safer for bicyclists. You know, the state is really investing in that, in this, and we're appreciative that. Our local roads don't serve a lot of the hiking. The hiking is mostly off state and county roads. But the big project on 73 is huge. It's going to be growing pains this summer but in the long run it's going to be wonderful.
Democrat Joe Pete Wilson is serving his second four-year term as Keene supervisor.