FULTON & MONTGOMERY COUNTIES — During a typical summer on the Great Sacandaga Lake, Luigi Lanzi estimates his family’s three lakeside restaurants sell about 12,000 meals per week.
Yet, the start to this summer’s tourism season is anything but typical. Lanzi said his business is currently down about 75 percent from where it would normally be this time of year.
“I feel bad for people who just started their businesses, because we’ve been at it a long time, and we’ve put some bucks away for a rainy day, and thank God because we can sustain ourselves, but it’s no fun,” he said. “You work hard, and then you have to put the money that you’ve earned back into it, so it’s a tough time for everyone. I’m not complaining, but hopefully we can get back to normal soon.”
Large gatherings and enjoying sit down meals at restaurants are still prohibited throughout New York state in its ongoing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, even as both the Mohawk Valley and Capital regions are now in the Phase I stage or reopening their economies.
Restaurants aren’t expected to be allowed to reopen for sit-down meals until Phase III, which won’t occur unless one or both regions can maintain seven different health metrics set by New York state to measure the spread of the pandemic for at least another three weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic, New York state’s shut down of nonessential businesses and now the beginning of a phased reopening of the economy have all led to a major disruption of tourism, one of the key economic drivers for Fulton and Montgomery counties.
In 2019, the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce published a report which stated that the two counties have experienced significant growth in tourism spending over the past five years.
According to that document, tourism spending in Fulton County has grown by 27 percent since 2014, totaling $64.2 million for 2018.
Montgomery County also saw growth in traveler spending, with an increase over the past 5 years of 9.5 percent, from $39 million in 2014, to $43.1 million in 2018, generating nearly $107 million in revenue between the two municipalities.
Those numbers may prove to be the high mark for tourism in the two counties until the threat of the pandemic has subsided and the economy fully recovers.
“So, tourism is in an unprecedented time and we have to look at things differently,” said Anne Boles, who was hired as the director of tourism development for Fulton and Montgomery counties back in December.
She said nothing has been typical about her short tenure as the official tasked with promoting tourism during a time when people aren’t supposed to travel, and people have grown fearful of travelers who might be carrying the coronavirus.
Fulton and Montgomery counties contract with the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce on an annual basis to develop a coordinated approach to promoting tourism.
While the Fulton County Board of Supervisors and the Montgomery County Legislature paid the chamber a combined $118,000 back in December to create a promotional strategy for regional tourism in 2020, nearly all of the chamber’s promotional activities are now on hold.
Boles explained that promoting tourism is normally about trying to attract people from outside of the counties to visit. This year, she’s changed her strategy, instead focusing on the concept of “Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown.”
“Obviously the point of tourism is to attract people from outside of our region, outside of our state to come visit our counties, but during this time, while we’re all maintaining social distance guidelines and we’re not really going anywhere, why not continue to try to get some revenue for our local counties by supporting our local restaurants, do curbside pickup, take a walk or a hike you wouldn’t have,” she said. “Those are ways to help our local businesses, so they’ll still be here when we really get the green light to let tourists come in.”
Boles said the chamber typically accesses funds from the state’s “I Love New York” matching tourism grant to purchase advertisements in media markets outside of the Mohawk Valley Region to promote Fulton County’s 44 lakes, Montgomery County’s museums and historical trails, and all of the other recreational activities available in the two counties. However, because the state’s matching funds are not available, Boles is spending the money in her budget cautiously, looking ahead to 2021.
“I’m not spending that money as I would, that money for ads that are out of Fulton and Montgomery Counties,” she said. “The state isn’t saying the money is frozen, but they say keep looking for updates for further guidance, so right now those are on hold due to ‘I don’t have the funds.'”
Boles said she plans to promote packages of tourism opportunities to people, which will include the Fulton Montgomery County Quilt Barn Trail, walking tours of historical markers in the two counties — locations of which can be found on the internet at hmdb.org — and historical cell phone tours, available at ecstantonhometown.org.
Boles, who lives in the hamlet of Meco in the town of Johnstown, said she’s taken the time to visit places in the two counties she had never been to, including the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, during the shutdown.
“That’s an absolutely gorgeous place that we have right in our area,” she said.
While Boles still encourages out of towners to visit, other local officials are asking them to stay away for the time being.
In March, Fulton County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Warren Greene issued a statement asking people who don’t live year-round in his county to not travel there during the course of the pandemic.
“[I call] upon our visitors, weekenders, and short-term rental owners and those with rental listings to refrain from visiting Fulton County during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Greene, who represents Gloversville’s 6th Ward.
During the shutdown, restaurants have been allowed to provide delivery and curbside pickup of food. While Lanzi said his family’s five restaurants — Sport Island Pub, Lanzi’s on the Lake and the Lakeside Tavern and marina (all on the Great Sacandaga Lake), as well Partner’s Pub in Johnstown and Lorenzo’s Southside in Amsterdam — are all in operation, he’s waiting to see when the state will let him fully reopen his businesses before he hires his seasonal wait staff. During a typical year, he would have started hiring college students to fill the nearly 60 part time positions that would be available.
“We’re ready. We’ve got the sanitizers. We’re not going to do menus, we’re just going to post boards and we can put our menus on the smart TVs,” he said. “When we have weather like [Saturday], everybody wants to be on the lake, and we’ve still got all of our dock spaces numbered, people can pull into the docks and order drinks, food, whatever you want and we’ll deliver it down to your boat.”
Movie theaters remain closed, however, drive-in theaters are allowed to open. Both Fulton and Montgomery counties each have one, owned by the same local business.
Darci Van Nostrand Wemple is the co-owner of the Ozoner 29 Twin Drive-in, located in Broadalbin, and the El Rancho Drive in Palatine Bridge. Wemple said there are only about 300 drive-in movie theaters left in the United States, and New York state probably has about 30 of them. She said her drive-ins opened up the first day of the Phase I reopening, and had strong attendance, despite not being able to show new movies because studios are holding back titles because of the coronavirus.
“All of these titles we showed [like Disney’s ‘Onward’] were accessible in other ways, but people just came out like a normal opening, everyone was excited to be there,” Wemple said. “People participated in the social distancing and wore their masks. Nobody was ugly about it.”
Wemple said she’s concerned the lack of new content will hurt her drive in as the summer goes on, so she’s formulated a two-pronged strategy of seeking out independent films still being released and looking at classic titles people might want to watch on the huge screens her business provides, movies like ‘Gremlins’ or some other horror films. She said she envisions theme nights as being crucial to this summer season.
“The fact that we got to open at all is amazing,” Wemple said. “We’re hoping that folks continue to come out even though our product is a little dated at this point. Eventually it’s going to be a lot of retro nights, unless the studios start putting out some brand new titles, we’re concerned that that’s going to be the dampening effect. Right now, everybody is so excited to get out, they’re just excited to be there, so we’re doing well right now.”
Boles said some organizations have replaced their planned activities. For example, the Caroga Arts Collective will replace its summer concert series with virtual activities posted on its website, carogaarts.org, and the Fort Plain Museum & Historical Park, which just launched its online bookstore.
Boles said she wants local residents in the two counties to help her to promote local activities to local people, by taking pictures of what they are doing and sending it to her at [email protected]. She said she’ll use the chamber’s social media resources to promote the pictures people send to her.