By Stephen Leon
When Enchanted Forest Water Safari officials announced the park would not open for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 crisis, Old Forge area residents and businesses feared that the closure would hit the local economy hard. There would be lost summer jobs, lost sales-tax revenue, and lost business income that would ripple through the local economy like wavelets from a vigorously paddled canoe on Old Forge Pond.
“Enchanted Forest Water Safari employs about 70 year-round local residents,” says Mike Farmer, tourism and publicity director for the town of Webb (which includes the hamlet of Old Forge). “Many have been with Water Safari for 10 to 35 years. That’s 70 local families who are essential to our local schools, businesses, emergency services, and social and cultural communities.”
In fact, the family-owned Water Safari is the largest summer employer in Herkimer County, drawing workers from Herkimer, Lewis, and Oneida counties, as well as J-1 Visa workers from abroad, many of whom spend money that circulates through the local economy.
And then there are the visitors to what, in normal times, is the largest summer attraction in the area—which this year would have featured the addition of three new slides as part of a $3 million expansion.
“It’s definitely a big blow overall for us—it’s no revenue for us for 21 months,” says Katie Wojdyla, co-owner with her sister Kelly Greene of the Water Safari and also Calypso’s Cove Family Fun Park, Old Forge Camping Resort, and the Water’s Edge Inn.
“It’s a big impact to us, a big impact to the town, a big impact to the income tax, and a big impact on lodging in Old Forge.”
Water’s Edge Inn, Wojdyla says, “is down significantly from previous years, over 40 percent down.”
The resort did receive loan assistance from the federal government; “That certainly helped,” she says.
The other properties are open; Calypso’s Cove “is doing OK,” but clearly would be doing better if the water park were open. “The campground, however, has remained above water. It’s still doing well.”
Farmer notes that the lost sales-tax revenue is substantial. “The portion returned to Webb from Herkimer County is crucial for maintaining the town’s infrastructure, [which] sustains our tourism, and differentiates us from many small, struggling towns in the Adirondacks.”
The pandemic has shuttered other large attractions in the park, including the nearby Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake, as well as smaller enterprises like the Strand Theatre of Old Forge.
“July and August traditionally fund most of the rest of the year,” says Bob Card, co-owner of the Strand. “It’s been very odd to not be open, that’s for sure.”
The indefinite closure of the four-screen, 708-seat, first-run movie theater is a microcosm of what is happening to many businesses in the park. In a normal summer, the theater would have benefitted from the large numbers of visitors to Enchanted Forest and to camps, like Adirondack Woodcraft Camps, which also are not operating this year due to the pandemic.
“We’re all in the same boat they are,” says Card.
The Art Deco theater, which dates to 1923, was bought in 1992 by Card and his wife Helen Zyma. Now operated year-round, the theater is busiest by far in the summer, when the screening schedule is “pretty intense”: special morning shows for campers, afternoon and evening screenings, and the occasional midnight show. In July and August, Card and Zyma normally have about 10 part-time employees.
Under Governor Cuomo’s initial plans for Phase 4 reopening, movie theaters would have been cleared to open on June 25, “which would have keyed right into the Fourth of July,” Card observes.
The owners “have rental income, fortunately,” Card says, and they took out a Paycheck Protection loan to keep three employees on, doing projects like painting. Even when they do get clearance to reopen, business won’t just snap back to normal; there will be new seating guidelines, some people may be reluctant to come into the theater, and with film production suddenly coming back on line, there will be a scramble for movies.
“We’re confident it’s going to be OK,” Card says, “but it’s going to take some time, and it’s going to be very different at first.”
Back in March, when Cuomo issued the New York State on PAUSE order, shutting down all nonessential businesses, there was immediate concern that it would cause some residents financial stress. A second-homeowner, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted Old Forge resident Linda Weal to inform her that an envelope containing $300 had been left on her porch. “I think this situation is going to be bad,” the donor told Weal. “Please give this out to people who need it.”
This led to cyber meetings with concerned local citizens and members of the Central Adirondack Partnership for the 21st Century (CAP-21), who organized a fund for emergency financial assistance for qualifying local residents, and formed a committee (including Weal) to solicit donations and also encourage those in need to apply for relief. To be eligible, residents had to live or work anywhere from Woodgate to Raquette Lake.
CAP-21 board president Deb Carhart stresses that the Central ADK COVID-19 Relief Fund is a local effort at both ends: “Give local. Help locals. Support local businesses. That sums up this fund’s objectives, and it is what is different about it as opposed to other aid programs.”
While the initial fund was for individual and family financial relief, CAP-21 announced a new initiative in July to offer grants to small businesses affected by the pandemic. This became possible when an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to seed the new fund with a $75,000 donation, plus an additional $25,000 based on matching donations from the local community.
As of July 17, the individual/family relief fund had received $206,894 in donations an assisted 96 households. The small business grants are expected to be announced by August 17.
About a two-hour drive northeast of Old Forge in Essex County, the storied village of Lake Placid is facing another harsh economic consequence of the pandemic: major event cancellations. The Lake Placid Horse Shows (June 23–July 5), the IRONMAN Lake Placid triathlon (July 26), and the Summit Lacrosse Tournament (August 3–9), events that would have packed the region with participants from all over the world, were canceled for 2020.
The initial forecast was that these cancellations and others would have a devastating impact on the local tourism economy, says Jim McKenna, president and CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST) in Lake Placid. But then a new “phenomenon” set in, McKenna says: “It was filled in with leisure travel this year.”
Even with those major events scratched, McKenna says, Lake Placid “did not see a downturn in traffic.”
McKenna explains that many summer vacationers from the Northeast abandoned more ambitious travel plans to choose the Adirondacks as a “close-in” destination. On what would have been the closing weekend of Summit Lacrosse, he says, the area is “close to capacity” anyway with regard to lodging at hotels, motels, B&Bs, and short-term rentals
Hotels are allowed to book to capacity, he adds, while some restaurants have adapted to the 50-percent-capacity restriction by expanding their outdoor seating and even expanding their dining areas into meeting rooms.
“Bowling alleys, movie theaters, gyms, they are suffering,” McKenna says. “But I think overall, some businesses are going to be a little better off at the end of the summer than originally anticipated” when the shutdown began in March.
Another phenomenon described by McKenna and Farmer is that many second-homeowners left their homes in places like greater New York City and New Jersey as the pandemic gathered steam, and chose to sequester in the Adirondacks—which coincidentally has low rates of COVID-19 infection.
This hints at another long-term potential effect of the pandemic on the Adirondack Park. Remote work (including both salaried employees and independent contractors) already has been an increasing sector of the national economy, and as companies have been forced to retool their operations to allow employees to work from home, early reports indicate that the arrangement has some promise. That might make certain parts of the Adirondacks attractive for potential new permanent residents.
That possibility has not gone unnoticed by McKenna, who says “there’s been quite a bit of discussion [on the question], Is there a market for year-round residents” of people living here and working remotely? He adds that the Innovation Workgroup of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council is already taking a look at that.
There are obstacles: Depending on the age and the work and family situations of potential new residents, they will be looking at key resources like quality of schools, wi-fi connectivity, and the quality (or even existence) of local health care.
The meager health-care infrastructure in Old Forge is no secret to Mike Farmer, who says he and others have been working on that issue for years: “I hope this year just puts an exclamation point on it.”
But Farmer points out another silver lining to business interruptions of 2020, and it underscores the intrinsic allure of the Adirondacks.
“Our summer tourism is primarily based on natural-resource recreation: hiking, camping, paddling, mountain biking, boating, and fishing, in that order. Normally, we rely on Water Safari to bring many visitors to our area, who are then introduced to everything else we have to offer, including our restaurants, shops, and cultural assets. Now people are seeking those activities we are famous for.”
Outdoor recreation is up, Farmer adds, “because that’s what people are looking for now. People are going to be looking to get away to places where social distancing precautions are built in. If you want to get out and get away from people, get out on a boat in the middle of a lake. Get out on the top of a mountain. Get on a mountain bike. We’re really fortunate that that’s built into what we are famous for here.”