The state acquisition of 69,000 acres of the former Finch Pruyn lands in the Adirondack Park has spurred much discussion. I thought I’d chime in from a tourism perspective.
In general, the purchase will ultimately mean public access to incredible natural resources for recreational activity. Or, according to a press release from Governor Cuomo’s office on August 5th, “Opening these lands to public use and enjoyment for the first time in 150 years will provide extraordinary new outdoor recreational opportunities, increase the number of visitors to the North Country and generate additional tourism revenue.”
I applaud the Governor’s office and their efforts, and appreciate that there is opportunity for the adjacent communities to realize a positive economic impact from the resulting increased visitation.
There is no doubt that the number one driver of overnight visitation to the region is the recreational opportunities available courtesy of our protected Adirondack mountains and lakes. In fact, outdoor activities are the largest visitor draw to the area, followed by relaxing, dining and shopping, and sightseeing. Outdoor activities have not only remained at the top of the list of attractions for many years, but have steadily grown in popularity as a reported draw to visit. Of those activities, hiking is number one, followed by paddling.*
So from a tourism standpoint, public access to an additional 69,000 acres of our most attractive and popular product is a really good thing.
Here’s the question: are the communities adjacent to this land positioned to benefit economically from any resulting increased tourism activity?
Visitors to these newly-acquired lands, whether they are hiking, hunting or paddling, will certainly stop at local businesses and buy gas and food etc. However, those who visit Newcomb, Indian Lake, North Hudson and Minerva on their way to the trailheads will likely be regional; meaning day-trippers. Although overnight visitation offers the best opportunity for economic gain from tourism, these communities do not offer enough rooms to take advantage of increased visitation from overnight guests.
Here are some numbers to consider: In Essex County, which includes the Towns of Minerva, Newcomb and North Hudson, there is a 3 percent occupancy tax collected. Collection totals serve as an indicator of overall tourism activity, and lodging typically represents about a third of overall tourism spending (the other two-thirds represent retail, dining, and attractions).
In 2011, occupancy tax collections for all three of those towns combined totaled $8,360, or less than 1 percent of the overall collections. Comparatively, over $1,500,000, or 89 percent was collected in the Town of North Elba.
The difference, of course, is the number of rooms in these communities. Due largely to aging infrastructure, many of the small communities in the region are struggling to attract their share of potential visitors in a very competitive destination marketplace.
The primary challenge is to find ways to grow tourism in the greater region, while managing growth in the more established tourism bases of Lake Placid, Old Forge and Lake George.
How do we do this? Several years ago, my office spearheaded a destination master planning process to assess the product that the region’s communities offer to the traveling public. This process, facilitated by a third party consultant, resulted in the development of destination master plans for six communities, including Saranac Lake, Schroon Lake, Moriah, Ticonderoga, Wilmington and Lake Placid.
Each of the communities now has a destination master plan that identifies unique challenges and strategies specific to their needs and in appropriate scale. Most of the challenges are based on the need for updated lodging and the development of products that will facilitate greater exchange of money to contribute to the tourism economy – such as increased sale of locally-made goods associated with the rich history and culture of the region.
Not every community needs or wants to be a resort town. The task in all communities is to engineer tourism in ways that benefit area residents and their quality of life in terms of jobs and business opportunities, while preserving the culture. The loss of a grocery store because of lack of demand results in the loss of jobs for locals and a resource for both residents and visitors. However, just as a lack of facilities results in a negative spiral effect, an increase in visitor demand will drive the need for increased facilities, such as grocery stores, which in turn benefits residents.
Increased economic impact from tourism is a facilities issue…not a marketing or recreational issue.
Every one of our Adirondack communities offers our greatest visitor-attracting products: outdoor activities and sightseeing; and they all share a relationship with the Adirondack Park, a valuable, built-in platform to deliver positive visitor experiences.
The addition of this new land access offers opportunity. At first, it will primarily be locals who will explore these pristine acres. Ultimately, though, with engaged stakeholders, private investment, Adirondack entrepreneurs, perhaps Park-specific incentive programs and other grassroots initiatives, the Towns of Newcomb, Indian Lake, North Hudson and Minerva have the opportunity to realize real economic benefit from the latest and greatest attraction in the Park.
* 2011 Essex County Leisure Travel Study (PDF)
Photo: Canoeists on the Hudson River near Newcomb (Courtesy Phil Brown).