Governor Andrew Cuomo lavished attention yesterday on the North Country’s tourism industry, shouting out to the Thousand Islands, describing the Glens Falls balloon festival as “magnificent” and announcing creation of a new whitewater rafting competition in the Adirondacks.
He has argued that New York might be able to convince millions of downstaters to travel north to our venues and resorts, rather than traveling to out-state destinations from Colorado to Vermont.
“We’ll have marketing events around special events,” Cuomo promised.
“Our challenge is to reintroduce people to the beauty and the assets of Upstate New York,” he said. “We need to make that introduction.”
But here’s the painful truth.
On the same day that the governor made his speech, I learned that one of my favorite cafes in the Adirondacks — one of the only really good, year-round eateries in Westport — has closed its doors, apparently for good.
In much of the North Country, there’s plenty of beauty. Vast forests and mountain vistas. Wild rivers. Some of the most beautiful and iconic farmland in America.
But there are few places to stay, not enough things to do, and not enough high-end, dependable restaurants.
“The biggest brand builder is called word of mouth,” says Jim McKenna, head of tourism and marketing for Essex County.
“Until we have appropriately sized and scaled facilities throughout the north Country region, it’s going to be very hard for us to be competitive in the global marketplace.”
In many parts of our region, long-time resorts and venues have been closing their doors for decades. From the Northway, you can see the glittering lights of Great Escape theme park, but you can also see the shuttered remains of Frontier Town.
In big stretches of the Adirondacks, it can be hard to find a place to buy a tank of gas, let alone a good meal, or a high quality hotel room with modern amenities like wi-fi.
Often, even those hikers and skiers who flock to our region find few businesses selling the kinds of goods and services that they’re inclined to spend dollars on.
We’re a region that wants to market itself as a high-end destination, but in many towns the highest-end venue that’s open year-round is the local Stewart’s shop.
In conversations with entrepreneurs who are trying to make the tourism business work in the region, I hear deep anxiety about the future — about their ability to translate all our beauty into new investments, decent jobs, and sustainable businesses.
One idea that’s being tried again, in the new Regional Economic Development Council program, is a revolving $2.5 million loan fund designed to leverage tourism infrastructure investment. That might help.
I suspect that communities will also have to do a lot more, investing more local tax dollars in promotions, in upgrading their downtowns, and perhaps in creating parts of their communities zoned for business and not for residential housing.
(In many parts of the Park, long-time tourism destinations have been converted at an alarming rate into private homes.)
We also need to find ways to streamline the permitting process for investors who contemplate new projects like the Adirondack Club and Resort in Tupper Lake.
Whatever you think about the design of that project, the review shouldn’t have taken so long. The process as currently structured allowed both state officials and the resort’s backers to dither for years.
I also suspect, however, that smart North Country towns will view tourism as only one component of their future prosperity.
Expanding the number of year-round visitors would be a huge boost, to be sure.
But we also need loggers, factory workers and telecommuters to keep the dollars flowing year-round, even when mud and black flies make us a tough sell for vacationers.