ELIZABETHTOWN — Essex County lawmakers voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 3 to ensure the sweet sounds of the county’s summertime lifeline — the cha-ching of the cash register — will resonate for at least another three years.
The county’s board of supervisors is required to approve the renewal of the three percent occupancy tax on lodgings that has brought in more than $20 million since its initial imposition in 2000.
Ninety-five percent of that number is turned over to the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism (ROOST), the agency tasked with marketing outreach, to promote tourist attractions within the county.
The remaining five percent is used by the county for operating costs.
Despite passing unanimously, several lawmakers and local officials revisited a common refrain: We want more.
‘JUST A LITTLE PIECE’
Moriah Chamber of Commerce President Tim Bryant said his organization does a lot to promote their lakeside town with little resources.
The chamber’s operating budget is $12,000 per year. Half of that, he told lawmakers at the meeting, goes to fundraising. The other half goes toward operating costs. The prolonged uncertainty makes it difficult for the chamber to plan accordingly, he said, a situation that is not unique when it comes to other towns in the county.
“It’s hard to have a three-year plan when you don’t know how much funds you’re going to have,” he said.
He said there used to be 22 empty storefronts in downtown Port Henry.
Now there are none, a transformation he said is a testament to their efforts.
“Festivals and cultural events are an important part of our experience,” he said. “With some funding from the occupancy tax, we could do a whole lot more.”
Bryant said the towns that don’t receive direct funding from ROOST indirectly support those that do because tourists trickle outward due to a lack of developed infrastructure.
Moriah has only 15 hotel units.
“But we have a lot more than 15 visitors,” he said.
Bryant noted participants in the region’s annual bass tournaments stay in Ticonderoga.
“They come here to use the boat launch, but they would stay here in Moriah if we just had the facilities."
Margaret Bartley, a representative of the Elizabethtown-Lewis Chamber of Commerce, expressed similar sentiments.
“Our two motels and four bed and breakfasts are usually booked,” she told supervisors. “We send them to neighboring communities — like Lake Placid, Keene and Westport.”
According to figures provided by the Essex County Treasurer’s Office, Elizabethtown contributed $3,185 to the occupancy tax in 2013, a figure that has remained relatively consistent over the past decade. Westport kicked in $4,129, or $82,544 since 2000.
Port Henry generated $17,730 since 2000, while Moriah Center contributed exactly nothing in the 14 years since the tax was instituted.
As for Lake Placid, the village generated $1.6 million last year and $17.2 million since 2000, about 958 times more revenue than Port Henry.
“We need to support events in Essex County,” said Bartley. “A little bit spread around is the best way to fertilize the ground.”
“Why should we?” countered North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi. “We generate most of it.”
“Each town needs to promoted,” said Schroon Lake Supervisor Mike Marnell. “Maybe set aside some portion for each town to use equally.”
Ticonderoga Supervisor Bill Grinnell asked ROOST CEO Jim McKenna for a refresher course on how the agency allocates its funds.
“There seems to be a lot of confusion and unknowns,” he said. “Including people who have been here for awhile.”
ROOST has carved its territory up into four regions, McKenna told supervisors.
Strategies are in place to promote the High Peaks, Lake Champlain, Whiteface and Schroon Lake regions to the traveling public, he said.
Each fall, the board of supervisors’ occupancy tax advisory committee greenlights the plan submitted by ROOST that maps out the strategies, which means the lawmakers, in theory, have a say in how the funds are allocated before they approve the plan.
Individual towns are required to go through a formal application process to receive funding outside of those parameters for individual events.
“Funds shouldn’t be used for the annual pig roast, so to speak,” said McKenna.
He said his agency has allotted $59,000 for event promotion outside of North Elba, including 16 fishing tournaments.
Bryant said he wasn’t aware of the application process. He said he is already looking into submitting the forms that allocated funds for next summer’s schedule.
“I encourage everyone to meet with Jim and his staff to make the process more clear,” said Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee. “They really do a lot to promote our towns.”
McKenna admitted the lack of man-made facilities posed a challenge, but held his office’s strategies up as models of success.
ROOST is in the preliminary stages of exploring the idea of creating sub-regions — like Elizabethtown, Lewis and Keene — to give the towns a bigger bang for their buck.
McKenna reminded supervisors that his agency was contractually obligated to show a return of investment of $60 per $1 spent on marketing efforts.
“ROOST does a great job,” said Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava. “We just want a little seed money. If something happens in Moriah, it will impact other towns.”
“We’ll be pushing ahead,” said Bryant. “We’re not walking away from this.”
At a meeting earlier this year, McKenna told lawmakers that while revenues generated by the occupancy tax were the highest they’ve ever been last year at $1.9 million, it’s important to note that the figure is a direct result of the increase in lodging opportunities — including last July’s opening of the Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa in Lake Placid — and continued efforts are required to keep that number climbing.
Eighty-five million people live within a six-hour drive of the region, he said, and it’s important to create a unified front and start competing against tourist draws outside the region — like Europe and Cape Cod — and stop positioning themselves as competitors to regional bedfellows Lake George or Old Forge.
On Monday, June 9, ROOST released a leisure travel information study conducted by a third party determining that visitors spent $93 for every occupancy tax dollar spent on marketing in 2013.
McKenna estimated this past weekend’s 10th Annual Lake Placid Marathon, to single out just one event, generated about $726,000 in direct spending for the town and $28,600 in sales tax for the county.
In a written statement, he expounded on Monday’s report: “This data underscores the correlation between our marketing strategies and the resulting economic impact to the region.”
According to a study conducted by Tourism Economics in 2010, North County tourism is a $1.1 billion industry, generating $144 million in state and local taxes.
“We have to continue to drive overnight visitation,” said McKenna.