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Is the Grand Plan to Keep the Interior of the Park “Forever Abandoned?”

November 25, 2010 - Ernest Hohmeyer

A Forgotten Adirondack Landmark? As I have been traveling the Adirondack Park over the last 25 years on various community or business development missions, I have always been surprised by the number of businesses that close literally the day after Labor Day. I often wonder how these businesses survive. In the last several years, I have noticed that there seems to be more of these seasonal businesses that are not re-opening and are now abandoned. As a result, many of small Adirondack hamlets that are in the interior of the Park are losing key retail and service businesses. This has been confirmed in a way by the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Report. While the Report had documented very well our aging population, declining school enrollments and needs in infrastructure it does not take a direct look at our business base. A failing, I believe, that needs to be corrected should there be a follow-up report.

A Declining Opportunity? However, it stands to reason that as we lose our working families and other vital community infrastructure components, we lose our business base as well in these communities. People start and stay in business for a whole range of reasons but the one commonality they all share is that at the end of the day can they make enough money to pay the bills. No matter how much you love the community you grew up in or relocated to, the bottom line is you believe there is enough of a business opportunity to make a living. Lacking a real industrial base in most of these communities that dot the interior of the Park, they need to survive on 3 principle markets: tourism, second homes and locals. The local population according to the Report is not a growing market for these businesses creating a greater emphasis on second homes and the visitor trade. As communities lose their key infrastructure, there is a question whether the second home market remains attractive to a typically aging population and less reason for today’s discriminate traveler to stop there. And we are not talking about the Taj Mahal here, we are talking basic infrastructure like gas stations, hotels and restaurants. Our own family this week has been doing an American military history tour and we visited Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Norfolk to name a few. We are always interested in exploring out of the way places but with a family that includes three children we are looking to “land” in communities that offer several visitor choices in terms of places to eat and stay.

Was the Plan All Along to Strangle Adirondack Communities? Perhaps this is why the rhetoric of late by those that support community and business development is getting so sharp; I think they believe that many of these small communities that were once vibrant small towns are dying in the Park or at least closing in on the point of no return. On my cynical days, I often wonder if that is the grand plan by many. Create regional hubs such as the Lake Placid, Old Forge and Lake George and let the interior of the Park be “forever abandoned” similar to our National Parks. There, economic activity is supported on the periphery of Parks like Yellowstone and discouraged or not allowed in most places on it’s interior. Is this how one can explain the creation of a Park-wide regulatory system and a fragmented community and business development effort? Is this why there is an APA yet no analogous state Park-wide economic organization? Why is it that in terms of the state’s conservation agency, economic development, transportation and others that are key to our community’s future sustainability provide no similar Park-wide effort, strategy and oversight?

Old Challenges But New Opportunities? If the Park is indeed a special place, it needs to be looked at in a holistic manner defined as both a community and environmental habitat. Too often our community and business voices are well intended but they are underfunded, undermanned and fragmented. The Adirondack Common Ground Alliance is a wonderful concept and an outgrowth of similar efforts in the past such as the Regional Economic Cabinets under former Governor Cuomo. However, while the Regional Cabinets had some success, they did so because they were funded and recognized by the State as priority economic tools. The Adirondack Park can be a leading example of a viable economic region and a forerunner in environmental protection. Why do I say this? For 2 reasons: First, we live here and I believe that for most of us we do not want to become an overrun industrial zone – we just want balance. A balanced agenda that supports or unique way of living and that protects the area we call home. Second, we rely on tourism, a problem in itself (a discussion for another day) but tourism can be a great tool to help advocate this balance. In the Fall issue of Strategy + Business in an article entitled “Natural Partners: Tourism and Sustainability” Jurgen Ringbeck concludes “In an era of environmental consciousness, every locale that wants to remain attractive and competitive needs a strategy for sustainability” Ringbeck is not only talking about the concern related to climate change but also related issues including waste management, carbon emissions (what does that mean for our rubber tire economy?), biodiversity conservation and water supply protection. As savvy visitors who can travel to anywhere in the world now that offers natural adventures and escapes like the Adirondacks, they are selecting with increasing frequency those regions and communities that are sensitive to their environment. International travel magazines such as National Geographic now use environmental sustainability as a targeted element in their destination rankings. Does waste management sound like a concern of our community leaders? Is not water protection a key priority of environmental groups?

Agreeing on a Profound Goal: Branding the Park as the World Leader in Sustainability More than ever before, we have a golden opportunity to work together and make the Adirondack Park a world renowned leader in how communities and the environment can work together. Sustainability can be our internationally known destination brand for us. We need to move beyond the rhetoric and for real success, the state needs to be a player as well as our communities, businesses and environmental groups. Real resources and significant investment needs to come forward from all parties not just the state. This opinion has been heard before from many others. If it continues to go unheeded then perhaps the plan all along was to create what our Adirondack communities are facing today. I do not think there has ever been a moment when there has been so much common interest and where the threat to our environmental and community habitat has been so grave. Can we take advantage of this new opportunity?

Putting the Adirondack Park on the World Stage: An International Sustainability Conference? Second and third world countries such as Costa Rica and Tibet with distress far greater than ours were able to gain support and money from government, business, communities, and environmental groups not only locally but world-wide related to their branding efforts on sustainability. Can we do the same? Perhaps one step is to host an International Community Sustainability Conference similar to the one held in Costa Rica in early November to encourage these efforts.

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