Drive 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?
Despite 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 “Some of these communities are so small, their infrastructure is so out of date, and the amenities they offer no longer appeal to today’s visitor,” Hohmeyer said.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.”
It’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.”
While 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