LAKE GEORGE, N.Y. (NEWS10) – It’s an annual tradition. Upwards of 1,000 international student workers travel to Lake George every summer to staff theme parks, golf courses, boat cruises, restaurants, and everything else that comprises tourist season on the lake. After COVID-19 put a vice grip on student travel, and as the crisis in Ukraine creates a second one, the village mayor says there’s another problem: Not enough places for the students to stay once they arrive at the lake.
Lake George Mayor Bob Blais put out a call on Sunday for help providing housing for this year’s surge of students arriving on J-1 visas. An array of smaller hotels and motels have long offered residence to those coming to spend the summer abroad, but this year, there are fewer of them.
“A lot of these motels now, for some reason or another, have gone back to renting to tourists,” said Blais on Monday. “This year, it seems like there’s less accommodations than ever.”
This year, Blais has heard calls for over 75 multi-student hotel rooms from just four out of Lake George’s dozens of local businesses. Historically, many of the hotels that have catered to international students are those that have phased out of traditional, commercial rental. Some of those are on backstreets, or in other circumstances where registering as J-1 hosts provides more reliable business than catering to tourists.
Other hosts are cottages run by families, and a few by the businesses where their summer residents work. The Sagamore Resort in Bolton Landing owns a small house for its workers.
Not everyone is so fortunate. Fort William Henry, the largest non-chain hotel in the village of Lake George, can’t even offer its own rooms to students. With tourists booking and planning vacations far in advance, the hotel is already booked up for the summer – leaving the roughly 80 students who work there alone seeking somewhere else to stay.
When Blais says the problem has gotten worse this year, he would know. Over the last six years, he has led municipalities around Lake George in the Lake George Student Connection Committee, a group of volunteers from the Lake George/Bolton Landing/Queensbury area that work to directly set J-1 students up with housing and ensure that they can get to it. Before the group came together, there were a lot fewer guarantees.
“We had some students getting off the bus and depending on finding a room once they got here,” said Blais. “We also found some sleeping in Shepard Park, under the bandstand. They didn’t know where to go. They were like lost souls.”
Before Blais organized the group, students were supposed to connect with a place to stay through sponsorship offices. The problem: Those offices are far from Lake George, located in New York City and Connecticut. That meant any number of students not given the connections they needed.
For all the students that would arrive in Lake George with no idea whether Fort William Henry was closer or farther than the nearby town of Bolton Landing (several miles up the lake), some were also victim to abuse of labor laws. Blais recounted a few cases where students with smaller, local employers would be told that they could not be paid until they received their U.S. Social Security cards in the mail, using that falsehood as a reason to withhold pay.
Similar problems could bleed over to the housing side of the lake just as easily. The mayor recalled a situation several years ago, where the owner of a small hotel collected $100 each from around 40 students who stayed there for the summer, as a security deposit. When it came time to leave at the end of the season, the students were told that the owner had left, and would not be returning – leaving them $100 high and dry.
If we build it, they will come
With hotels already booked for the summer, the Student Connection Committee has to look elsewhere. Blais has considered purchasing and refurbishing an old hotel or motel. Six Flags Great Escape, which accounts for around 200 of the area’s annual J-1 influx, houses many of them at a similar structure across the street, behind Martha’s Dandee Creme.
The more prominent idea in Blais’ mind, though, is to acquire a plot of land where a brand new dormitory can be built. The village knows roughly how big the need is, which means there’s plenty of room to plan for how much space such a structure would need.
In the event that the dormitory plan moves forward, Lake George would look at federal housing and urban renewal programs for funding and grants. Private partnerships – with some of the many businesses that thrive in part thanks to Lake George – would also make a lot of difference.
Blais, who has served as Lake George mayor for 52 years, is calling the housing effort his last big project. He plans to retire after his term expires at the end of 2022. Anyone who wishes to get involved in housing students can contact the mayor’s office at (518) 668-5771, ext. 8.
“We must develop housing if we are to continue to be a first-class resort. We need the students to offer a level of services that encourages people to return to Lake George,” Blais said.
The Student Connection Committee continues to operate. In addition to finding student housing, it also helps many find second jobs, as well as services and useful information for living in Lake George. A representative now greets incoming students at the bus stop, so nobody will be left stranded, trying to find out how to get to their new summer job – or a roof over their head at day’s end.