By MATT LINDSEY
POTSDAM – What do recruiters at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, local colleges and the Potsdam Chamber of Commerce tell prospective employees, students and visitors about the intriguing and divisive downtown toilet gardens?
Public relations representatives at Canton-Potsdam Hospital, Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam all laughed when asked, what do you tell prospective students or employees about Potsdam’s toilet gardens?
For most people, it seems to be met with curiosity, they say.
“What is this you guys have going on here?” is a common question asked of hospital officials when doctors ask about the controversial toilet gardens, said CPH Vice President of Physician Practice Management Carlos Alberto III.
“Curiosity and humor,” are the most common reactions from prospective employees, he said. “People mainly want to know why they are there.”
Inquisitiveness reigns supreme at the local colleges too.
“The displays are definitely something that visitors to our campus, such as prospective students, families, employees and returning alumni, notice and occasionally ask about,” said SUNY Potsdam Director of Public Relations Alexandra Jacobs Wilke.
"We have no direct anecdotes from prospective employees or students to share,” said Vice President for External Relations Kelly O. Chezum. She did not elaborate on the university’s stance.
Potsdam Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Marylee Ballou says she always asks those who confront her with toilet garden questions, “Do you want the short or long story?”
Ballou interacts with prospective business owners as well as college alumni and prospective students and their parents. She says most of the questions come from alumni and college students, but she has not been approached recently about the topic of toilets.
Following a second zoning change denial in 2005 that would have allowed Dunkin’ Donuts at Pleasant and Market streets, businessman Frederick “Hank” Robar placed many toilets on the property and decorated them with plastic flowers. He painted a small building on the property in rainbow colors, and planted rows of corn. This display is close to the hospital and can be seen by most motorists driving through the village.
As time went on, Robar added two more toilet gardens, one across from Clarkson on Maple Street and another near SUNY Potsdam on Pierrepont Avenue that was removed after Robar sold the property.
Curiosity Over Commodes
When the topic of “toilet art” comes up, Alberto says he tries to “make light of the situation and move on.”
He said he does not present the gardens negatively, citing the “eclectic” feel Potsdam has, and “that is a good thing.”
“We do get an occasional question,” said Tom Nesbitt, SUNY Potsdam director of admissions.
The school does not have any sort of official college “response” about questions pertaining to toilet gardens.
“It’s always a good time, relaying the story — sometimes you just have to have fun with the story,” Nesbitt said.
“While Clarkson respects freedom of speech and expression, the originator of the toilet art protest has had ample opportunity to fully share an opinion on his issues of concern to the Village of Potsdam through this format of expression,” Chezum said.
Alberto said he makes no mention of a dispute between landowner Frederick “Hank” Robar and the Village of Potsdam.
“It never gets to the point of why,” he said. “Once someone (a potential employee) lands here – they are more interested in the history of the village, schools, and safety.”
Alberto does not believe a doctor has turned down employment at CPH because of the display of commodes.
“They might find it odd, but it has not been a deterrent to bring a family here,” Alberto said.
He estimated the topic has come up about five percent of the time with prospective doctors.
SUNY Potsdam officials echoed Alberto in that they do not feel the toilet gardens have dissuaded a parent or student from moving to the area.
“I don’t think people are put off by it. They are more curious than anything,” Nesbitt said. “It’s just a quirk with a story in our community.”
Human Resources officials at SUNY Potsdam do not have any sort of “set” response about the topic, and say they don’t recall getting a lot of questions about it, Wilke said. She suspects it’s something that job candidates would be more likely to mention in interviews with departments.
“These displays do not reflect Potsdam’s true character as a tight-knit community that cares about its residents, businesses, cultural organizations, students and visitors, Chezum said.”
Ballou says she tries to avoid getting into much detail with people about it, sticking with “a dispute between the village and one person.”
“I tell them to find a news story about it,” she said.
The amount of information Ballou divulges depends on the level of curiosity.
“I will sometimes tell them the history of it or how long it has been there,” she said. “It is someone’s artistic point of view.”
Selling the North Country
When highlighting the area for potential medical personnel, Alberto said he does not spend too much time talking about the potty gardens, instead focusing on the positives the community has to offer.
CPH recruiters focus on the safety of the North Country, the excellent schools and proximity to cities such as Ottawa and Montreal.
“The village has done a great job in sprucing up the village,” Alberto said.
Alberto credited CPH staff in the recruiting process as well. “We have a strong medical staff that seems to recruit itself,” he said.
Ballou was not aware of the gardens ever swaying a student or business owner from coming to Potsdam.
“Most of the business owners I deal with are local and are aware of the situation,” she said, noting they are generally more concerned with coding and signage information.
Ballou thought the toilets could deter people, but also attract them too.
Instead of “potty plants,” Ballou says she markets the scenic Ives Park, local trails along the river, as well as low crime rates and a strong education system to tourists and visitors.
When selling the North County to applicants, what a school decides to highlight depends upon where the student or employee are from and what situation they are looking for in their career or career aspirations, but there are common themes, Chezum said.
Chezum said low crime, great schools and access to great outdoor recreation and scenic landscapes are great selling points and a given in any conversation about why Clarkson, why Potsdam.
“But the real unique heartbeat about coming to Clarkson and living in Potsdam is that every aspect of your life comes together in a close-knit community, Chezum said.
“Your academic, research, business development and social experiences collide with intentionality. In this community, we value first-name relationships and opening doors; we find ways to learn, study and solve real-time problems through community service, internships and research based on gaps in technology or solutions in the current marketplace; we welcome people and the sharing of traditions from many different faiths, nationalities and cultures; and we value buying local and supporting our friends and neighbors whether it’s repair services, produce, banking, hockey tickets or community performances.”
Chezum said community events often bring together a sense of what life in Potsdam is all about.
She cited when the women’s ice hockey team was sent off for the NCAA championships and the rally was full of local residents. She also mentioned when on military appreciation day there is a conversation between a first-generation American grad student from Brooklyn and a WWII veteran finding things in common.
“All great reasons to live, work and study in Potsdam,” she said.
Toilets Talk of Town
The toilets have had quite a history over the years in a variety of ways. Robar garnered both support as an artist and contempt from the community since his first toilet garden popped up.
In 2011, Robar planted another porcelain protest on property he owned along Maple Street, directly across from Clarkson University.
Robar added more toilets to his properties after a tenant he was renting to intentionally burned down an apartment at 28 Pierrepont Ave. nearly four years ago. This site is on the same street as SUNY Potsdam.
Robar sold the land at 28 Pierrepont Ave. last October and the new owner, Ron Page, removed the toilets. Shortly thereafter, a row of toilets appeared at Maple Street and Pine Street, prompting complaints from Agway storeowner Daryl Kolanko.
The toilet displays have been vandalized several times as well.
Meanwhile, some students used the gardens as inspiration for art projects and the toilet display even garnered national attention from NBC when they ran a story titled “Potty Town” while in St. Lawrence County covering the Garrett Phillips murder trial.
Village officials have said in the past that forcing removal of the displays would not be as simple as invoking a provision in the village code to cover the situation, because there doesn’t seem to be one.