When it comes to protecting the Adirondack Park for future generations we naturally turn first to preserving wilderness and natural wonders. Everything else flows from this first principle enshrined in Article 14 of the state constitution and other legislation.
But safeguarding the well-being of the human communities within the Park is also essential. And despite the rhetorical excesses of some pro-development groups, these mandates are not mutually exclusive. Being in favor of preserving open lands does not mean being opposed to development—it means favoring smart development, done right and in the right places.
What places? Villages and hamlets. For both environmental and economic reasons, officials and investors should concentrate their attention on these residential and business centers.
By centering development in these areas, we move pressure off the fragile backcountry and rural lands within the Park. The Adirondack Park Agency Act envisions just this kind of concentration:
Hamlet areas will serve as the service and growth centers in the park. They are intended to accommodate a large portion of the necessary and natural expansion of the park’s housing, commercial and industrial activities.
But beyond the clear environmental benefits, hamlet development brings important economic advantage. In a region that relies heavily on tourism and outdoor recreation, local residents should realize the financial gain that comes from visitors. To do that, they need facilities that keep visitors in a community, staying in hotel rooms, eating in restaurants, and buying stuff from local businesses.
James B. McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid, made this point in a presentation to commissioners of the Adirondack Park Agency in September. Using financial comparisons between Essex County and Hamilton County, he showed how two areas with similar natural attractions and recreational opportunities see starkly different financial pictures. Essex County has facilities for tourists, many concentrated in the village of Lake Placid. Hamilton County doesn’t have a large center like that.
Among his findings: in 2011, Essex County received 84 percent of visitor spending in the two counties in comparison with Hamilton’s 16 percent; Essex County led in labor income, 89 percent to 11 percent, and in employment, 87 percent to 13 percent. Moreover, within Essex County, the town of North Elba, which includes Lake Placid, had the overwhelming amount of financial benefit from tourism. It collected 88 percent of the occupancy tax in 2011, for example.
As hotels, restaurants, and other amenities cluster in a community, visitors stay longer and spend more money. In areas without such facilities, day visitors come and go without lingering to support the local economy.
McKenna’s statistics demonstrate how important it is to offer inviting facilities in a welcoming environment for tourists, who are looking for a special experience. They also show how unequally the tourist dollar is distributed through the Park. A small number of communities, notably Lake Placid, Old Forge, and Lake George, have the lion’s share of the business.
Look at Newcomb, located in the heart of the mountains with easy access to some of the best outdoor recreation in the Adirondacks. The town has few facilities to serve potential overnight visitors. People come to the area to hike into the High Peaks, ski to Great Camp Santanoni, or paddle on Henderson Lake. When they are done, most of them drive home or to other communities that have the beds and dining rooms they are looking for. Or consider the thousands of visitors who tour Fort Ticonderoga in the summer. Neighbors of the historic attraction aren’t seeing the benefits they could because so many of the tourists stay in Lake George or Lake Placid.
The economic benefits that grow from vital tourist centers aren’t limited to the hotel operators and restaurateurs. Money that stays in town helps fuel development of services that are important to local residents as well: groceries, gas stations, clothing stores.
Of course, if it were easy to create a successful destination community, even a small one, we wouldn’t see the disparities we have today. One obstacle is the business risk of taking the first step. Some entrepreneur has to have the vision, the talent, and the capital to see the opportunity in an underserved rural hamlet and build with confidence that visitors will come.
Beyond this, hamlets often lack the basic infrastructure necessary for growth. In an interview in this issue Johnsburg Supervisor Ron Vanselow discusses the business resurgence he has seen in the hamlet of North Creek. Yet as the Saratoga and North Creek Railway brings people to North Creek, and Gore Mountain draws skiers to the area, the community is limited in the number of visitors it can attract as overnight guests. It simply lacks the number of beds needed to realize its full potential. Investment in more hotel rooms seems like an opportunity for the picking, but
North Creek lacks a key piece of infrastructure: a sewer system. And without that, investors face the expensive prospect of paying for a system for their development project.
While private enterprise should fuel investment in businesses, there is a role for public money in ensuring that our communities have the infrastructure they need.
For the health of the Adirondack Park and its residents, the benefits of the tourist industry need to be more widely distributed. Economic-development officials, community leaders, and the business community should make enhancement of the Park’s villages and hamlets their priority. Not all communities can or should try to be another Lake Placid. But many have the potential to be smaller tourist centers. Taking advantage of their own strengths and building in scale with their community, they can start to offer the experience that visitors are looking for. And in so doing, they will help ensure the future of the small-town lifestyle they embody and treasure.
—Tom Woodman, Publisher