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The Future Of Our Outlying Communities
August 20, 2012 - Ernest Hohmeyer
Could the Adirondack Park in less than 20 years, devolve into 3 regions: Lake Placid, Old Forge and Lake George and its “suburbs”?
Will the rest of the Adirondack Park become a drive through? Will some of our sensitive and beautiful environmental areas like the High Peaks become over-run while other habitats become abandoned?
It may take a whole community to attract today’s tourist. Visitors are attracted here because of our nature.
However visitors tend to stay and spend money where there are destinations.
And these “destinations” may be more than we realize: it requires our environmental resources, community and business assets to work together.
When I became involved with the Adirondack economic development scene in the 80’s communities were trying to revive their historic industries in mining and lumbering or manufacturing.
Tourism has become the icon to save today’s communities.
The North County Regional Economic Tourism Council suggests that tourism can be “transformational.” In the introduction of its report it states: “Tourism offers the most viable opportunity to diversify and ignite the North Country economy…”
But can it?
Just like the natural resource industries were being asked to revive the economy in the 80’s, is tourism in the same boat today? Save for the hubs of Lake Placid, Old Forge and Lake George, can tourism grow in our outlying communities of the Park?
I know what you are thinking - it better because we are really in trouble if we cannot.
Sounds like the same conversation of 30 years ago with a different savior.
Why not tourism?
There are all types of visitors. But we should not confuse that with what they are looking for: they are driven here by our mountains.
However, the Adirondack Park has 6 million acres of mountains.
It’s the why of where they choose to stay within the Park that we should be looking at.
There is a reason why Lake Placid is responsible for between 80-90% of occupancy tax income for Essex County. This is despite the beautiful communities along Lake Champlain or the historic area of Ticonderoga.
And no it’s not because of the name Lake Placid or the Olympic legacy. Ironically, through a study, the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism discovered the word “Adirondack” was more known.
Okay now wait a minute, then why is the whole Park not succeeding?
It is because a combination of natural assets have combined with a wide range of amenities including a choice of hotels, restaurants and shopping that lures visitors to the 3 Adirondack “hubs.”
The North County Regional Economic Tourism Council points to a problem: “…visitors’ expectations have changed and the North Country lacks up-to-date lodging and a critical mass of attractive, visitor oriented business districts across the region, which hinders forward momentum of the tourism industry. And visitor spending is not spread equally throughout the region, but concentrated in “hot spots.”
Further, in its “Current Condition” section of the report they point to several “common challenges” including:
• “Aging civic infrastructure or infrastructure that cannot support additional development;
• Lodging and amenities that do not meet current visitor expectations;
• Declining access to the waterfront, a key visitor attraction”
Number of tourism facilities in decline?
This is certainly true in Franklin County. The legislature has appointed a committee which I am a part of to determine if an occupancy tax should be implemented. We were astonished to learn that the number of lodging rooms in the county is at a “historic low.”
Our committee has quickly discovered we need to encourage more rooms and working with communities to do so may just as important as marketing.
To my knowledge there has not been a study of this but in working with tourism officials and businesses in the industry several factors have been suggested. These include:
• It is difficult to encourage the development of rooms in some communities where there are limited other amenities. If there are no restaurants, grocery stores or gas stations, why stay there?
• Independent small business hotels/motels are finding it hard to compete with chains as our society increasingly chooses the “safe” or recognizable name brand.
• The land speculation of the last 10 years has increased land value beyond what the business is worth. It is difficult to justify the purchase of a multi-million dollar property when the business income is break-even at best.
• Quality of life in operating a tourism business is deteriorating. Long hours, fighting for survival and surviving the stress of a seasonal economy is not something that we want our kids to go through.
• There is little incentive to keep current lodging properties intact. It appears to be easier to sub-divide properties for residential use than to propose their continuation and upgrade as a commercial enterprise. The North Country Regional Economic Tourism Council points out that “Critical select state policies and regulations are unfavorable to tourism development in rural areas.”
Vacation Rentals: Friend or Foe?
Land speculation in combination with the recession has caused a dramatic increase in the number of vacation rentals. It has become a big business in the North Country.
But according to tourism officials, one of the largest components of visitors who wish to stay in the Park desire the Bed & Breakfast, motel and hotel experience. If that is the case, then we may need to take a new look on how we encourage more rooms and to regain the prominence of our outlying communities as destinations.
And it goes way beyond a motel room. It may require a comprehensive look at all the community’s amenities of shopping, restaurants and recreational venues.
And we may need to provide incentives to do so and the Regional Tourism Council is recommending that with a “Community Transformation Tourism Fund” and a “Regional Tourism Planning Initiative.”
But it also may take a greater working partnership with the vacation rental industry or at least putting them on the same playing field. As a vacation rental there are advantages a motel cannot sometimes compete with. Some of these may include minimal regulatory compliance, limited sales tax and occupancy tax collections, commercial insurance and permitting.
It appears that traditional lodging units are in rapid decline. Beautiful historic properties as they are sold are not being replaced by a continuation of a hotel operation but typically residential uses. The public cannot access many of these sites anymore and a part of our history is vanishing.
Once again, we may need to work together as a community and a region to come together. From the tourism industry to regulatory agencies and from local government to residents: how we can partner together to encourage more rooms?
If tourism is going to be “transformational” to our economy as mining and lumbering were to be, we may need to think in new cooperative ways before its heyday also disappears causing another nail that hurts the viability of our outlying communities.
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