Every four years, Lake Placid puffs up a little with pride. But for this diminutive village with a big name, the quadren-nial preening can be excused. After all, Placid sits in strong company with Innsbruck, Austria, St. Moritz, Switzerland, and the Savoy region in France as the only communities to host two Olympic Winter Games.
Nestled in the heart of upstate New York's Adirondack Park, Lake Placid is by nature unpretentious, its attitudes shaped by North Country winters and a rich tradition of guiding visitors around the 46 "High Peaks" and endless waterways that grace the landscape. Today, no pilgrimage to the town is complete without genuflecting at the Olympic Center-site of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice"-or retracing the downhill on Cloudspin at Whiteface.
To be sure, Whiteface Mountain and the Olympic legacy form a central axis in the community, but a kaleidoscope of year-round events and outdoor options keep the place from being fingered as solely a ski town. "We've become an events-based community," says Mayor Robi Politi, a Lake Placid native and former All-American skier at nearby St. Lawrence University.
Drawn by the beauty of the Adirondack State Park-a 6 million-acre forest, half of which is protected as "forever wild" by the New York constitution-events flow through Lake Placid as surely as Lake Tear of the Clouds feeds the Hudson River. In summer, the country's largest horse show and an endorphin-laced Ironman Triathlon balance winter's snowy stable of world-class glisse events. Year-round, the arts flourish with a vibrant Center for the Arts and a steady stream of cultural activities, including Pops in the Park and the Lake Placid Film Forum.
Just up the hill from downtown's Palace Theatre sits a collection of attractive bungalows and late-Victorian homes that makes up Placid's most vibrant neighborhood. Banished to the outskirts of the village are the growing number of nouveau-rustic homes typical of new ski town design. On Main Street, an amalgam of mismatched buildings form a gustatorial and shopping gauntlet that would drive an Intrawest village planner to distraction. Who cares? It feels just right on the shores of postcard-perfect Mirror Lake.
In a quirk of Adirondack nomenclature, municipalities nab names from lakes nowhere in view, but Lake Placid's trout-filled namesake is just a skip of a rock across a narrow isthmus. Lakeside "camps"-Adirondack-speak for a summer place however humble or palatial-still dot the shoreline, now mixed in with year-round converts and elegant inns that harken to another era.
A caché of luxury was affixed to the Adirondack name in the mid-19th century. During that Age of Steam, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and others built elaborate "Great Camps," establishing the region as a summer refuge. But even in Placid, times change. Few "summer people" now own any camp or stay long enough to join the community as they did during the good old days between the 1932 and 1980 Olympics.
Though flooded with 1.8 million short-stay visitors, Lake Placid retains the warmth of a tight-knit community. "It's a spectacular place to raise a child, especially for anyone who likes any outdoor activity," says Jim Shea Sr., who competed in the nordic-combined and cross-country events in the '64 Olympics in Innsbruck. Sitting behind the counter of the liquor store his family has run since 1944, he adds, "I have three grandsons, and they have something going on every minute of their lives."
Shea and most residents readily concede that though idyllic for tourists and kids, Lake Placid is a tough place to make a living. Residents of Essex County, which runs from the High Peaks to the shores of Lake Champlain, report median household incomes little more than half that of their suburban New York visitors. Factor in the inflationary pressure that vacation homes place on Placid's real estate prices, plus an $18 million tab for state-mandated sewer and water upgrades, a you get an inkling of why the village population of just 2,999 hasn't grown much in the two decades since its last Olympics.
The Adirondack Park has one of the most comprehensive land-use plans anywhere in the country, meaning business and even residential projects are only for the truly patient. Redevelopment of the landmark Lake Placid Club is on a 25-year timeline, and that's backed by a well-connected local family. Park regulations flat-out killed a proposed Wal-Mart, explaining why industry looks 30 miles away, outside the Park's "blue-line" boundary.
But, as most residents note, what's the point if you can't slip out to ski or if the local trout stream's been fouled? Hard-bitten locals vote with their feet, earning their turns in the expansive backcountry. But Whiteface-ranked No. 1 in the Eastern U.S. in SKI's Top 60 Reader Resort Survey-has its own bona fide wild snow experience. When it dropped the ropes on a hike-to stash called The Slides in 1998, the state-run area added texture to a mountain known not only for its prodigious vertical drop-3,430 feet-but also its enamel-like skiing surface.
"When conditions are right, there's nothing like The Slides," says Jeff Delaney, a 31-year-old Delaware native who moved to the region to attend Paul Smiths College in 1992. With a degree in forestry and a passion for skiing, Delaney has made Lake Placid home by working in ski and bike shops. Married now and in the market for one of Placid's elusive starter homes, he's back in school to become a teacher.
If he's lucky, Delaney will end up in the well-regarded Lake Placid public schools, where elementary kids who enroll in the Lake Placid Ski Club's learn-to-ski programs get early dismissal twice a week. Those with higher aspirations-like following in the tracks of reigning national GS champ and 2002 Olympian Thomas Vonn, who attended the Northwood School in Lake Placid-chase gates at Whiteface with the New York Ski Educational Foundation. Others simply rack up a lifetime of memories under the lights at Mt. Pisgah, a community run T-bar hill in neighboring Saranac Lake.
With two Olympics under the town's belt, state politicos and visiting skiers wonder whether or not Lake Placid could do it again.
A better question might be, "Does Placid want to do it again?" As Jim Shea Sr. puts it, "As much as I love the Olympics, it's a lot of blood, sweat and tears for 17 days." Then again, if the U.S. Olympic Committee-or even Montreal-ever came knocking with a proposal for a regional Games, Lake Placid might be swept off its feet. Until then, residents seem content to bask in the afterglow.
Phil Mahre slept here: The 1980 Olympic athletes' village in nearby Ray Brook is now a maximum security Federal Correctional Center.