Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Brian Mann: Adirondack Tourism Lifts Some Boats

Lake_PlacidDrive through Lake George, and you can see evidence that tourism is booming. Traffic is heavy, especially in summer when Lake George runs full-throttle. There are plans for a major hotel and a reinvention of downtown that includes an easing of building-height restrictions. A wave of construction is underway, with new shops, outlet malls, restaurants, and attractions.

“We’re extremely fortunate in the Adirondacks that our principal industry is tourism,” says Lake George Mayor Robert Blais. “No smokestacks, no getting up in the morning and reading the paper and finding out [the major employer] is going to close in six months. We’re part of the picture I think of the great Adirondack Park where families can come and find so many things to do.”

Lake George isn’t alone. Other thriving tourism towns, such as Lake Placid and Old Forge, have seen an increase in visitors, often drawing travelers year-round. In addition, a second tier of resort communities, including Inlet, Keene, North Creek, Saranac Lake, and Schroon Lake, seem to be enjoying the fruits of a visitor-based economy.

Economic data for specific towns are hard to come by, but a 2012 state report found that tourism accounts for roughly 12.4 percent of jobs inside the Adirondack Park, roughly thirteen thousand positions altogether. And in a 2013 progress report, the North Country Regional Economic Development Council says Essex County experienced an increase of 9 percent in visitors from 2012.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has made tourism development in the region one of his top priorities, launching a new ad campaign—including TV and radio spots and banners on New York City buses—while also establishing a new $2 million revolving loan fund to foster investment inside the Blue Line. “It’s not just about fun,” Cuomo said during a visit to the Adirondacks in March. “It’s about economic development and jobs.”

The question remains, though: is tourism enough?

CuomoDespite the success stories, many observers fear that most Adirondack communities have been left behind. “Tourism’s heyday as we have traditionally defined it may be a bygone era,” warned Ernest Hohmeyer, owner of Lake Clear Lodge, who writes about economic issues in the Park.

While the Park’s visitor industry “will continue to play a dominant role” in hub towns such as Lake George and Old Forge, Hohmeyer and others are convinced that more remote Adirondack villages will struggle to compete. “Some of these communities are so small, their infrastructure is so out of date, and the amenities they offer no longer appeal to today’s visitor,” Hohmeyer said.

In many places in the Park, it’s difficult to buy groceries, a tank of gas, or a sandwich. Finding an upscale hotel room or restaurant is often impossible, especially in spring and winter when many establishments close their doors. Scenic lakes that once boasted Gilded Age hotels are now ringed by private second homes.

“We’re well aware that Newcomb has limited dining and lodging facilities,” said Newcomb Supervisor George Canon, who hopes to see his community grow into a major snowmobile hub. “I think it’ll help if we put the infrastructure in place that captures the public’s dollars.”

Yet some communities have experienced a loss in tourism infrastructure. Over the past decade, popular hotels and resorts have closed in Blue Mountain Lake, Indian Lake, and Upper Saranac Lake. Two other major destinations, the Normandie Beach Club in Westport and the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake, are for sale, introducing more economic uncertainty.

Colin Beier, an Adirondack researcher at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said many communities have found it difficult to cash in on the Park’s abundance of public lands. “One of the challenges is the remoteness. A lot of people looking for those remote experiences don’t spend a lot of money. They’re wilderness purists. They want to get away; they want to camp; they want beans and rice and solitude,” he said.

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, takes issue with the notion that hikers, cross-country skiers, and paddlers don’t spend money in the Park. “A great majority of our members are in their forties and fifties, and they like to have a hotel or B&B from which to hike from; they love to have a dinner in a restaurant after a hike,” he said. “Our members have the means to spend in the community, and given the opportunity, they do.”

BirdersIt’s not just the smallest towns that have failed to develop much of a tourist economy. Some of the Park’s largest and most scenic population centers—communities such as Ausable Forks, Port Henry, and Tupper Lake—remain on the margins of the visitor industry.

Jim McKenna, head of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, based in Lake Placid, acknowledged these concerns and said his organization has shifted much of its focus from marketing and advertising to developing new infrastructure. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of your third-tier towns to really make a lot of changes [in their tourism economy] before we figure out how to get some private-sector investment and make some things happen,” he said.

However, he urged realism, pointing out that some small towns might not find practical ways to harness visitor spending and that sparking significant economic activity could take “at least five years.”

In Saranac Lake, in contrast, Mayor Clyde Rabideau believes the village is on the verge of a tourism renaissance. The long-neglected Hotel Saranac, a historic landmark now under new ownership, is being restored to its former grandeur, and plans are also underway for a waterfront resort on the shore of Lake Flower that could generate as many as seventy year-round jobs.

The latter project has drawn criticism from some residents who argue that the hotel will mar the waterfront, but Rabideau supports it—with modifications. “We need this hotel, in addition to the Hotel Saranac, to give us that critical mass of first-class lodging facilities so that we can attract conferences and conventions and be a real tourist destination. With just one hotel we’re not there yet, we need a second one,” Rabideau said.

How good are tourism jobs?

The state Labor Department says four hundred jobs were created in the tourism industry in the North Country over the last year. The hospitality industry is the region’s third-largest job creator, following government and health care, according to the department.

Yet many tourism positions are poorly paid, part time and/or seasonal, offering few benefits. A 2011 study by the Labor Department found that “average weekly wages of $255 are relatively low in this industry,” with many of the jobs going to “low-skilled workers and youth, especially in the summer.”

Indeed, the transition from blue-collar industries to service-sector jobs has been painful for many towns. “A manufacturing job, a mill job, a logging job—they typically pay a lot better than these tourist jobs, which tend to be inconsistent, and they don’t have benefits,” Beier said.

What’s more, many of the region’s tourism jobs go to non-Adirondackers. The Labor Department does not keep statistics on the number of itinerant workers in the Park, but in peak seasons visitors are likely to be served lunch or helped aboard a ski lift by a student from South America or Eastern Europe.

“Foreign students are a big part of the labor force throughout the Park now,” said Lake Placid Resort owner Arthur Lussi, who is a member of the Adirondack Park Agency board. “We’re not denying Americans jobs. These are temporary summer employees.” He said many North Country businesses would have a hard time operating without international students who come to the Adirondacks on special work visas.

Industry leaders say foreign students tend to work for lower wages and have first-rate job skills. Also, their schedules match better with the seasonal demands of tourism businesses. Mayor Blais said foreign workers help the Lake George economy by filling up “little mom and pop hotels that can no longer compete with the chains. They’re living here, buying clothes here, and then they’re going home and telling people how beautiful the area is.”

What about the environment?

As Governor Cuomo and other state and local officials push for more investment in tourism, there are also questions about environmental impacts. The waterfront hotel in Saranac Lake, for example, has been described by some as a potential eyesore.

“Are your village planning board and village board selling your beautiful village out by having this super-sized hotel built on Lake Flower and Lake Flower Avenue?” wrote Sean McHugh, a Lake Clear resident, in a letter to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. He compared the visual impact of the project to the giant wall of the state prison in downtown Dannemora.

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, has helped lead a legal fight to block the Adirondack Club and Resort project in Tupper Lake, a giant housing development that would include a hotel and marina as well as a plan to revitalize the Big Tupper Ski Area. He said properly scaled tourism is good for the Park, but he’s convinced that too many projects on the drawing board are either too big or allow too much motorized recreation.

Protect and another green group, Adirondack Wild, have been critical of a proposal by the state to create a snowmobile trail in the recently acquired Essex Chain Lakes Tract in Newcomb. Bauer said of Cuomo, “His sense of trying to build a recreational infrastructure oftentimes devolves to motorized uses.”

Essex_chainWhile some green activists have expressed concerns about his agenda, Cuomo has drawn praise from many elected officials, including Republican State Senator Betty Little, who describes the governor as the Park’s “number one tourist.” Since becoming governor, Cuomo has visited the Park many times, paddling on Boreas Ponds, participating in a whitewater race on the Indian River, and taking a snowmobile ride near Paul Smiths, among other things. He also has taken a personal interest in decisions affecting the classification and management of newly acquired state lands.

If Cuomo is re-elected this year, his affection for the Adirondacks could prove invaluable as more regions of the Park scramble to modernize their tourism infrastructure. Most of the investment in tourism in the coming years likely will come from Albany and from taxpayer-funded loans and grants, not from private sources. In the last year alone, the Cuomo administration committed tens of millions of dollars to restore the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway in Wilmington and upgrade a ski lift at Gore Mountain—in addition to bankrolling the tourism-marketing blitz. In 2011, a $20 million convention center built by the state opened in Lake Placid.

The state also funded smaller tourism-related projects in Raquette Lake, Tupper Lake, and Blue Mountain Lake as well as underwriting Saranac Lake’s two hotel projects.

Even industry leaders who urge caution and realism say tourism remains the best hope for tiny Adirondack towns that have seen their populations shrink in recent decades. McKenna, with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, said a revitalized visitor economy, combined with small-scale industries, could offer a way forward even for the smallest communities.

“Tourism is part of the puzzle, it is part of the answer,” he said. “Other potential industries [and new residents], they’re not going to come to some of these communities if we don’t have the necessary services for them to be comfortable. I think the catalyst for this will be tourism. It’s going to take some trial and error, but I’m more optimistic now than I was two years ago.”

Photos, from above: Lake Placid (photo by Nancie Battaglia); NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Adirondack Challenge in 2013 (Nancie Battaglia); birders (Nancie Battaglia); paddlers on the Essex Chain Lakes (Susan Bibeau).

This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here

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Brian Mann

Originally from Alaska, Brian Mann moved to the Adirondacks in 1999 and helped launch the news bureau at North Country Public Radio.

In addition to his work at NCPR, Brian is also a frequent contributor to NPR and writes regularly for regional magazines, including Adirondack Life and the Adirondack Explorer.

17 Responses

  1. George L says:

    Would someone please calculate how many permanent jobs are needed in the Adks to make the communities viable.

    How can we meaningfully discuss employment from tourism without talking about the total employment needs?

    And why not talk about manufacturing jobs, or a new cure industry, and the role of Gov. Cuomo to accomplish that?

    The parties that emphasize tourism are the parties who profit from tourism.

    Who speaks for everyone else?

    • Matt says:

      “viable” is a moving target. Certainly many Adirondack communities have changed significantly from years gone by, and their idea of what is viable now may be very different than it used to be.

      Ideally, tourism compliments other industries. Any one thing on it’s own will have weaknesses.

    • AdkBuddy says:

      It’s sad to see 6 thumbs down to only 3 up when someone wants to talk about jobs in the Adirondacks. Tourism is nice but as mentioned many of the jobs are poorly paid, part time and seasonal. We need full time jobs with good wages and benefits if we want to see prosperity for more than the tourism related business owners.

  2. Matt says:

    The best type of tourism, in my opinion at least, is the kind that appreciates the culture and character of the community and doesn’t conflict with it. It must be a good fit. Inlet and Old Forge have their snowmobile culture in the winter- they get the snow, they have the trails, they have the amenities, and the community is supportive, so it’s a fit for them. Wilmington has embraced cycling. An art culture is thriving in the Champlain Valley along with a local food movement. Where these positive developments are happening because of grassroots efforts, the state should take notice. This is where the success stories will come from because they’re coming from the hard work of people in the community that really care about supporting their community and improving the quality of life for residents and visitors. A stronger tourism economy happens to be a nice fringe benefit from their efforts.

  3. Rich S. says:

    We went through Newcomb around 10 am on July 4 on the way to Essex Chain Lakes, and were disappointed to find Cloudsplitter Outfitter closed. We had planned to stop there and get some gear, maps and advice. If the Newcomb businesses want to see some economic benefit from the new visitors, it would seem to make sense to open on one of the busiest days of the season.

    Also, we were surprised to see no DEC sign at the intersection of Rt. 28N and the access road, and almost no signs until about 4 miles from the put-in. We hope DEC will make things a little easier for the folks who may not have maps and/or GPS.

    • Rich,
      Sorry we missed you on Friday. The hours for the shop are 10am to 5pm 7 days a week. Our website has our hours listed as well as our phone number.www.cloudsplitteroutfitters.com.
      We actually start work at 7am delivering boats /firewood/ice etc. to the local campgrounds. Typically if someone stops at the shop before or after our hours of operation and we are available, we are happy to help them out if we can.
      We work pretty hard to run an operation we can be proud of and to have this type of negative comment attached to our name is unfortunate.
      As for the signage for the Essex Chain,the work order is in and the signs will be going up soon.
      If you are in the area again stop in. I would love to chat with you.

    • Matt Sisti says:

      Hi Rich:

      I can appreciate your frustration. I must state that I’m a regular customer at Cloudsplitter and find it to be one the best of its kind in the Adirondacks. No need for me to comment any further on that but I want to try and make a connection with Ruth and Dave’s absence from their store with Brian’s excellent article. First off, I am in complete agreement with Peter Bauer’s position on properly scaled tourism. I want to direct your attention to a very smart remark referenced in the article by Colin Beier, an Adirondack researcher at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry, He said “many communities have found it difficult to cash in on the Park’s abundance of public lands. “One of the challenges is the remoteness. A lot of people looking for those remote experiences don’t spend a lot of money. They’re wilderness purists. They want to get away; they want to camp; they want beans and rice and solitude,”

      I am one of these people. I enjoy remote places, hiking, camping, etc. When my friends and I take these trips we load up our coolers with food and drink and rarely if ever venture into the local community. Having said this, I also respect the fact that local communities must survive and its OK to seek opportunities to capitalize on “properly scaled tourism”. I’ve been an advocate for easier access to these lands, not just better signs. Easier access would allow Dave and Ruth Olbert to run rafting, canoe and kayak trips from the upper hudson and take out before the Class III rapids begin. This is impossible now with the long carries proposed in the classification guide. So, perhaps if Dave and Ruth were running trips like this they wouldnt need to leave the store as much to sell firewood to local campgrounds and could open earlier, you would get your gear and some great advice and Newcomb grows the tax base. Hey, everyone wins! 🙂

  4. Brian Mann Brian Mann says:

    I was in the Essex Chain yesterday paddling and I agree with Rich – the signage is pretty awful. At one juncture, local homeowners have actually put up a huge, brown, official looking sign that reads “Private Property, No Trespassing” that really appears to refer to the road that leads to the public put-in. Confusing…

    But the bigger issue is that there are many, many turns down long, poorly marked roads that one must navigate to get this new much-trumpeted area. It’s weird that the signage isn’t up already. If I hadn’t been guided by someone else, I would have been a) really, really lost and b) pretty grumpy.

    I also think Rich’s comments about Cloudsplitter should be read as honest feedback. When people arrive in these remote areas — especially people not deeply familiar with backcountry travel — they’re going to be looking for advice and help and guidance. And it just doesn’t matter much to those travelers why a business is apparently “closed.” (I know this from personal experience.)

    This isn’t on Cloudsplitter to fix, obviously – you guys run a great business and can’t be the “welcome center” for that part of the Park. But it is important that when visitors arrive in remote areas of the Adirondacks they find a readily available mix of goods and services.

    In the short term, maybe something as simple as everyone in each town have a sign that says “If we’re closed for a few minutes, try stopping in to these other businesses for assistance.” I know the Adirondack Information Center is staffed all day, for example. They might serve as a good backstop…

    –Brian Mann, NCPR

    • George L says:

      Brian –

      Thanks for your comments about the road to the Essex Chain and Cloudsplitter.

      Any chance of another article by you to address the issues raised by my comment above about overall Adk employment needs, etc.?

      I am dismayed that stories on the crucial issue of job creation lack data. We know much more about the trees in the forest than the people in the towns. I say this as a devoted Adk camper who believes in wilderness designations.

      But I have many Adk friends who work very hard to scrape by. No one speaks for them.

      We know that many tourism-related service jobs don’t pay enough to support a family. So why is every town told that tourism is the answer?

      Why no discussion about manufacturing jobs? Why is Gov. Cuomo being given a free pass on this?

      It’s time that journalists, politicians and advocacy groups focus on building the Adk economy through job-creation beyond tourism.

  5. Hope says:

    I find it kind of unusual that an Outfitting Shop would be open so late in the AM. Probably due to past business not being too plentiful that early in the past. The future may dictate staffing the store earlier. I know here in Tupper Rquette River Outfitters is open at 8 AM 7 days per week in season and sometimes stays open past 5 if business warrants it. And, they are out picking up and delivering boats earlier and later than that.
    Gotta make hay while the sun shines around here. I drive by there everyday and it’s always jamming in the AM.

  6. Paul says:

    Brian is it accurate what the Lake George mayor says about tourism being the principal industry in the Adirondacks? Maybe in his town.

    “no getting up in the morning and reading the paper and finding out [the major employer] is going to close in six months.”

    What if the ADE had the following headlines”

    “Trudeau institute to move to Florida”

    “federal prison in Ray Brook to close by years end”

    “Sunmount closing by years end”

    “State Police Troop B headquarters to move to _______”

    These are reasons we need to improve tourism in the area. It hasn’t happened yet.

  7. Jim S. says:

    I have been vacationing in the Newcomb area for the last 4 years and the area has lots to offer without the hordes. The area is prime for small scale development. A small restaurant would make it paradise for me(its close already).

    • Paul says:

      This comment really cuts to the heart of the issue. If you are going to have an economy based mainly on tourism “hordes” are what you need. Look at a place like Cape Cod Massachusetts as an example. Their summertime populations absolutely soar. Not sure how it can be done but I would prefer an economy based on a mix of industries with tourism as a key but not the only key.

      • Matt Sisti says:


        You are spot on. The key is finding the proper balance.I’ve been involved in various facets of business and business development for the past 25 years and let’s be honest; enticing big business and often, even small business to come to New York is not an easy task. I commend Cuomo for his desire to find this balance. Through some of his new programs we may just start to see companies come here. Will they come to the Adirondacks? Hmmmm. Maybe on the outskirts, near I87, perhaps just south or west as well. The challenge is infrastructure. Unless it is an e-business (insurance, IT, Education,etc) where no product is distributed via classical means, its tough to move on these roads (other than logs of course). will we ever see a chip fab plant, solar panel manufacturer, etc. Probably unlikely. The quality of life is off the charts of course but, as a business owner that moves product, I would have a hard time rationalizing the costs of manufacturing in the ADK’s. I wish it were different but if we seek all the benefits this great area has to offer we must realistically accept the barriers and seek to overcome them.

      • dave says:

        If your goals are growth and growth… then yes, hordes are probably needed.

        If your goals are more modest, such as sustainable communities, hordes are not a necessity.

      • Will Doolittle says:

        Yes, exactly. Successful tourism depends on volume. You can’t have a successful tourist economy with a few bed and breakfast establishments. The few successes in the Adirondack Park — Lake Placid, Lake George — are busy places, and only Lake Placid is busy year-round. If you’re relying on hiking and paddling, or on skiing, that’s seasonal. Lake Placid is fortunate enough to have all of that, and more, but still struggles to make ends meet (see the recent stories on ORDA’s financial troubles). Manufacturing, with good-paying jobs that don’t require a large influx of visitors, is a much more stable base for an economy.

  8. Geo S says:

    I don’t know why Brian even wrote this article,hasn’t anyone heard, The APA won the Article 78 lawsuit. Now the ACR in Tupper will be putting hundreds of people to work, Millions in new tax revenue pouring into the coffers. New snowmaking, lodge and lifts on Big Tupper. Every boat in the park will be rising. So in the near future all jounalists can stop writing these kind of articles. Tounge firmly in cheek.