The North Country tourism challenge

Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a new Upstate New York tourism push in his State of the State Address on Wednesday. (Photo: NYS)

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.

30 Comments on “The North Country tourism challenge”

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  1. erb says:

    Sure, we can and should bring more tourists into the region but the real challenge is attracting and keeping year-round residents. That’s what keeps our local economies going during the 9 months of the year that don’t fall during tourist season. That’s also what makes a community work, semi-permanent ties among the residents.

  2. JDM says:

    “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.”

    That’s like putting a Bandaid on a hemorrhaging artery. It’s the high taxes at all levels that are driving good businesses out-of-business, and out of the area.

    Obamacare should be the final nail in the coffin of North-country businesses.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    The single biggest mistake made in the Adirondacks (and no, I don’t know how it could have been prevented) has been the conversion of cabin and motel properties into part-time seasonal residences.
    We have an overabundance of part-time residents and a shortage of full-time residents.

  4. The paradox is simply how do you bring the amenities that “high-end” tourists want without destroying precisely what makes the region so appealing to so many in the first place.

    Erb is right. The key is year round residents. Year round businesses require year round residents to work there. The Forever Wired broadband initiative is a good start. Reducing state mandates so property taxes can get under control would be a good move too; unfortunate that the governor failed miserably on this one… even going backwards on it in his state of the state.

  5. Peter Hahn says:

    One key is high end restaurants – not necessarily expensive but attractive to “foodies”.

  6. Kathy says:

    I hear deep anxiety about the future — about their ability to translate all our beauty into new investments, decent jobs, and sustainable businesses.

    And with the implementation of Obamacare, it’s not going to get better for these small business.

    Do the math!

  7. PNElba says:

    I love food.

  8. Anita says:

    It is a classic which-comes-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg problem. We need quality businesses providing amenities in the region to attract and satisfy tourists, but we need reliable tourist income to make those businesses sustainable.

    Obamacare is not the hobgoblin here. Vermont has lots more healthcare for everyone, and they keep their tourist industry going. Those who point out the problem of low year-round population, i.e. low population density, probably are closer to identifying the underlying problem.

  9. Mervel says:

    Anita is correct. If people are not coming here in the volume needed, and make no mistake you would need a lot more volume to open more high end operations, then opening up and investing in businesses to cater to them may be fruitless OR it may attract them, I have no idea which?

    I suspect we would not be in a high end market, but maybe we could be attracting national and international tourists who prefer less hype and more rugged.

    I mean Vermont is nice, but compared to a good portion of the Adirondacks, its crowded and is not wilderness in any sense of that word. You can’t climb many mountains in Vermont and not see farms, etc from the top. You can go into the ADK and not see signs of human activity, this is a relatively unique experience in the East. You can get it in Maine, West Virginia and parts of North Carolina. But we can’t compete with a Vermont style tourist, maybe we should not try?

  10. Newt says:

    How about “Nothingcare” like many here have now. My wife tells of standing in line in a pharmacy behind a guy digging and digging to try and find some change to pay for a prescription. Finally the pharmacist said, “Here, I’ll lone it (maybe 50 cents) to you.”

    Obamacare is worse than that?

    Germany insures 100% of it’s citizens for 60% (per capita) of what we pay to insure 75% and leave the rest twisting in the wind. And Germany just reported a balanced budget and it’s 80 million citizens had trade surplus 2nd only to what China’s 1.2 billion produced.

    Argue against government healthcare because you don’t want the government in your life if you want but not because it is bad for the economy. The facts are otherwise.

    This is not about tourism, maybe about keeping year-round residents

  11. erb says:

    I lived in Vermont for a few years and saw the pros and cons of a tourism based economy. Some pitfalls of a tourism based in large part on seasonal residents are hollowed out communities, exorbitant house prices and yes, lack of real wilderness. I also saw resentment from year-rounders and lack of community commitment from the summer folks. These are some of the reasons we decided to settle in the Adirondacks and not in VT.

  12. wj says:


    JDM and Kathy-

    Employers don’t pay more for employees’ healthcare until the number of employees exceeds 50.

    Seriously, put down the Fox News and hate radio and all the other professional liars and read a damn book.

  13. JDM says:


    Keep dreaming.

    Obamacare is coming for everyone.

  14. tootightmike says:

    Kathy and JDM! Are you crazy or just willfully blind? Obamacare means that small businesses, that don’t usually offer any benefits whatsoever, might be able to have staff that won’t leave the first moment that a better job comes their way. It means their workers won’t suddenly take sick, lose their apartment and run home to mom’s. It means that small businesses will suddenly actually be on even footing with those big time jobs elsewhere, and maybe the workers will actually be able to stay here and work for mom and pop.

  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A big problem in the Adirondacks in general is the same problem Glens Falls had for a couple of decades – too much of the business infrastructure is in the hands of old farts who have no desire to start a new project. They did their thing and they’re tired and old and they wont turn their holdings over to younger people at a price that would allow the young people to run a business at a profit.

    And there are too many people stuck in the same thought patterns that haven’t worked for a long time but they still wont change their minds.

    Where the heck is Dave? DAVE, hey you! Relatively young person who moved here. Tell us your thoughts. I’m guessing that most everyone else here with the exception of BrianMOYetc is an old fart. And Brian MOYFC didn’t move here.

  16. Ken Hall says:

    Mervel you say: “opening up and investing in businesses to cater to them may be fruitless OR it may attract them” then you say: ” You can go into the ADK and not see signs of human activity, this is a relatively unique experience in the East.”

    What is it you want? Wilderness? or; Business enterprises which turn the Adirondacks into a Vermont look alike?

  17. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    While most people have no idea where the AKDs are the wealthy are well aware. They have bought up too much of the available land so that it is difficult for young people to live here in any “desirable” area. High quality lower income housing is needed. And not junk! Developers shouldn’t fall into the trap the Detroit auto industry fell into. Young people want nice stuff. Small, efficient housing with nice amenities is what is needed.

    Higher minimum wage would be helpful too.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    North Creek has had a revival in the last couple of years with many new businesses. Will they all last? Who knows but North Creek is worth a look. A wine and tapas place, a new deli with gourmet foods, a pizza joint, revival of Basil & Wickes, and not new but the anchor of the New North Creek – Cafe Sarah.

    Cafe Sarah is an interesting story. It’s a business that caters to people who want good stuff but with an attitude that you have to work to be successful and you can’t rely on other people to make your business plan work. Of course she is a genius who has been on Jeopardy, so I don’t expect most others to measure up.

  19. tootightmike says:

    In too many North Country towns, the desirable land at the edges of the village has been bought up by “investors”. Often these are local people or entities, and their big plan is to sell it someday to the super-duper mighty-mega-whatever, make their millions and retire. These” investors” have no interest in actually DOING anything, BUILDING anything, CREATING anything, or employing anyone, and their presence in the real estate market creates an artificial shortage of new business sites.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m not done yet!

    I have a plan; a simple, cost effective plan to create awareness of the Adirondacks. Send me my share of the $5 million right now and I’ll tell you.

    Okay, here it is: Postcards!

    You laugh, but I’m serious. Print up a series of postcards with photos that portray the image that we want to project of the area, a hero shot of a skier, glorious fall image of a quaint town, a summer lake scene, whitewater rafting, a sumptuous meal set in the Lake Placid Lodge dining room… and each postcard has a map showing the location of the Adirondacks and one of those smart phone scan things that links to info on the Park.

    Some of the cards should be prepaid and given to people who are on vacation here to send home to their friends. Others, not prepaid but free, should be put at rest areas on the Thruway or in kiosks in Penn Station, etc.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Another one: the free vacation lottery.

    Every hotel/motel that wishes to participate would provide a list of individual rooms at their establishment. Once a month there would be a drawing, maybe one for each county, and the people in the room that was selected randomly would have their room paid for with tourism fund money.

    You wouldn’t have to advertise the promotion, word would spread virally. People would come to visit on the chance that they might get a free vacation. After all how many motel rooms could there be? Nobody even knows the Adirondacks exist; odds are pretty good, right?

  22. mervel says:


    I am torn on that. Personally I want a wilderness over large scale tourism. However I know many people are struggling in our North Country, is my personal liking to be valued over their poverty?

  23. mervel says:

    Now it may be indeed that our niche IS to be the wilderness of the east with a more rugged situation for more rugged tourists, and that may be how we get more people up here.

  24. JDM says:

    tootightmike: You don’t run a small business. That much is obvious.

  25. JDM says:

    ttm: what may not be obvious is that when it comes to parroting liberal talking points, it is better to take Bill Clinton’s advice:

    Don’t inhale.

  26. Rancid Crabtree says:

    While Obamacare does not currently mandate employers with under 50 workers must provide health insurance, the individual mandate does make it law that everyone must have some form of health insurance by 2014. We won’t go into the groups that have received exemptions (unions) or the Democrat Senators who voted for Obamacare that are now trying to get out of it in their states, but the individual mandate will carry costs that will affect jobs, just as an increase int he min wage would.

  27. Marcus says:

    No worries in Tupper Lake, as soon as that frivolous lawsuit is dismissed our town and the whole Adirondack Park will be saved. Just wait and see.

  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Rancid, I’ve been buying healthcare for my very small company for a number of years. The cost goes up double digits pretty much every year. Obamacare hasn’t made any difference that I can see yet in the bottom line, one way or the other.

  29. dbw says:

    erb is right about comparisons with Vermont. All I saw was the locals becoming second class citizens in their own backyard due the the negative impacts of tourism. High real estate prices, seasonal work. Most of the jobs tourism creates will not keep our sons and daughters from moving away. Higher energy prices do not bode well for the future of tourism. Maybe people will travel closer to home in the future, maybe they won’t.

  30. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I’ll give you a personal example of just one of the problems with tourism related businesses in the Park. For the past few years I’ve been seriously looking at a career change and have considered buying an existing business in the Central Adirondacks. Turns out a business I’ve had my eye on for about 5 years now recently went up for sale. As usual with any real estate in the Old Forge, Inlet, Eagle Bay area, the asking price is about triple what the property is worth.

    The long time owners, rather than asking a fair price for the business, want to make a killing trying to sell it to someone who has no idea what it’s really worth. They hope they’ll find the happy go lucky couple or single person aching for a career change and having the false romanticism perceived to come along with owning a business in this general area. Who cares if this potential new owner would take 20-25 years or more to actually pay off the asking price rather than ask a reasonable price that could be paid for in say 10 years instead? And still provide a reasonable return on the previous owners investment.

    This is the case with many of the businesses in this general area of the Adirondacks. They have unrealistic ideas as to the value of their business. Because it’s in the Adirondacks, and they spruced the place up a bit over the five years they owned it, it’s got to be worth a boatload more than five years ago, right? This, by the way, after actually opening their books to prospective buyers and showing them what little money they’d make after paying a fat mortgage. Owners seem to think they’ll easily find some sucker that while traveling through the park on a trip will magically decide they’ll pay them twice or three times what they paid for the business just five or more years prior simply because the area is beautiful. It’s this false idea of value that destroys the opportunities for passing along and possibly expanding such businesses. It’s really too bad as I think more businesses would change hands if their price was more realistic.

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