Montgomery County mulls county-run tourism bureau


Montgomery County officials Friday said their county is prepared to go its own way with tourism promotion regardless of whether or not the Fulton County Board of Supervisors votes to end its tourism contract with the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and create its own county-run tourism bureau.

“We would be prepared to take that on ourselves, if need be,” said County Legislature Chairman Michael Pepe. “It was this past fiscal year that we dedicated some money to it in our budget — and less money towards the chamber’s Tourism Promotion Agency aspect of doing things — with an eye towards the future, perhaps, that this day may come. We’ve always looked at this in somewhat of a suspect fashion, wondering the bang we’re getting for our buck, and wondering whether we can get more bang for our buck by doing it ourselves. It’s natural to assess it that way.”

District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell, chairman of Montgomery County’s Economic Development committee, raised the issue of the county’s future relationship with the chamber during a meeting of the legislature in September. He said the topic has been continuously controversial in recent years, and many Montgomery County officials believe the county has been getting better results from its own staff than the money being spent with the chamber.

“I think the time has come that we consider cutting the ties with the chamber for our tourism, and using our in-house staff to have better control over it,” Purtell said Friday. “I haven’t heard anybody come to bat for the chamber at this point.”

Montgomery County had already previously reduced its funding for the annual contract that both counties currently fund for the chamber to act as the “Tourism Promotion Agency” for the “I Love New York” matching tourism promotion grants each county receives annually from New York state.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Montgomery County was providing about $120,000 annually to the chamber, of which about $50,000 was the I Love New York matching grant, while Fulton County was spending about $178,000 to contract with the chamber.

Chamber President Mark Kilmer said Friday that during the pandemic, Montgomery County’s contribution to the chamber tourism contract dipped to $74,500 for 2021, but then rose to $95,000 for 2022, still lower than the pre-pandemic level of funding.

Kilmer has said he’s uncertain whether it would be advantageous for the chamber to try to continue operating as the Tourism Promotion Agency for Montgomery County if Fulton County pulls out of the two-county partnership funding the chamber’s tourism promotion efforts. He said thinks there are important benefits to having a two-county strategy for promoting tourism.

“I think it’s been proven that we work a little bit better regionally,” Kilmer said. “We produced a craft brewing trail that includes both counties, and I just talked to a craft brewer this week who was very upset that we could lose that one-on-one touch. Each county has maybe two or three craft brewers, but between the two you have eight or nine, and what we were able to do with the regional thought process was create a longer craft brew trail, which in turn brings in over-nighters, because people do travel for those craft breweries, believe it or not. I know people who will take a weekend trip, just like they do with the wineries. So, if you have four, that’s not a weekend trip, but if you have eight, that’s a weekend trip.”

Pepe, who also serves as the District 7 legislator, said during the county’s 2022 budget process, a decision was made to cut Montgomery County’s funding of the chamber tourism contract to below the pre-pandemic level and take the approximately $25,000 in savings and spent that money on in-house county tourism promotion, with new tourism related duties assigned to County Director of Communications Morgan McClary and Montgomery County Business Development Center Director of Program Development Vincenzo Nicosia.

“With Morgan and Vinnie Nocosia taking care of that side of things, I think we’re going to be in a position, if (Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort) comes to us and says ‘I think we want to do this on our own’, we’d be in a position to do it on our own, so we’re excited about that,” Pepe said. “That’s something that’s got to come to us from administration, but we’re not afraid to do it on our own.”

Ossenfort said if Montgomery County decides to pull back control of the I Love New York grant funding from the chamber, it is likely the county will look to save money by no longer making its approximately $45,000 annual contribution to the chamber for its administrative costs.

“You’re trying to coordinate the I Love New York program with what you’re doing as a county — and that has to be in sync — and over the years that hasn’t necessarily been the case, and this past year we really committed our own resources around developing our own strategic plan,” Ossenfort said.

Pepe said that wile no money was added to the salaries of McClary and Nicosia, the county has put the savings from cutting the chamber contract to use along with the county’s approximately $9.4 million in federal U.S. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) grant money to fund projects such as $100,000 worth of improvements at the county’s Burbine Forest Disc Golf Course made in anticipation of the “The Blues at Burbine” disc golf tournament set for Oct. 22.

“(The disc golf tournament) is already sold out, and we’ve got people coming in from as far away as New Jersey, so we’re focusing really on that and the details that Morgan has laid out,” Ossenfort said. “We’ve set aside $50,000 worth of ARPA funds already in this year’s budget specifically for tourism.”

Fulton County officials have said the federal ARPA funding has been an important factor in their county proposing to create a county government staffed “Visitors Bureau Division”, and likely hire the chamber’s current tourism director Anne Boles to be Fulton County’s tourism coordinator.

In August 2021, Fulton County unveiled its “Destination: Fulton County” strategic plan for how to spend its $10.4 million worth of ARPA funding. The plan included $1 million to the Parkhurst Field Foundation to help fund the construction of a “Legends Field” premier little league baseball field, $8.7 million to fund the Route 30/30A sewer line extension project and, mostly controversially, $1.2 million to help design and fund the Great Sacandaga Lake History Museum, a concept closely tied to the creation of the proposed visitors bureau division.

Pepe said Montgomery County’s experience with the ARPA funding has been different than Fulton County’s because local governments receiving less than $10 million in ARPA money were not required to submit strategic plans that could lock-in only certain projects like the Destination: Fulton County plan. He said Montgomery County hired a consultant to help craft a menu of potential projects to fund with the ARPA money, meaning more ARPA funded tourism related projects will likely happen in the future.

“There’s been some discussions the executive has had with the Fonda Fairgrounds, they’ve got some upgrades they’re seeking some help with some ARPA money on, and the list goes on and on,” he said.

Ossenfort said he has made no decision as to whether he will propose to the legislature that Montgomery County should stop designating the chamber as the official Tourism Promotion Agency (TPA) for the I Love New York matching tourism promotion grant. He said Montgomery County’s decision track has been independent of the moves being made in Fulton County, but if Fulton County chooses to stop making the chamber its TPA, that will call into question why Montgomery County should continue doing so.

“It’s a very hot topic right now, but our county is going to make a decision (later this month) and we’re certainly prepared to do it ourselves,” he said. “It would probably be very difficult to continue forward if some of the (chamber) staff is hired on by Fulton County,” he said. “I’m not sure how that would work, and I haven’t had any discussions with the chamber about that, but we’re prepared to handle that because we started in January, bringing a Tourism Committee together and dedicating staff that we already had on staff to really focus on this effort.”

Ossenfort said Montgomery County’s in-house Tourism Committee includes representatives from the Canajoharie Palatine Chamber of Commerce and the St. Johnsville Chamber of Commerce.

“The Montgomery County Industrial Development Agency has also paid Empire Solutions ($90,000 annually) to assist in our efforts, and they’ve also been helping with tourism, so we have a good team in place,” he said.

Fulton County Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Greg Fagan, town supervisor for Perth, has said his inclination has been that Fulton County could continue providing some funding to the chamber to continue operating the

District 3 Legislator Roy Dimond said in past years that District 8 Legislator Joe Isabel, who died in January, was one of the strong proponents of Montgomery County reducing its involvement with the regional chamber. Dimond said he thinks that sentiment has only grown stronger, but he still sees a chance that Montgomery County will want some involvement with the chamber for tourism promotion.

“I think we’re looking to do a blend, so I don’t think we’ll terminate the chamber,” Dimond said. “I think we want to do some things for ourselves, and we want the chamber to do some things for us.”

Pepe said he doesn’t want to speculate on whether there could be any aspect of tourism promotion Montgomery County might want to keep getting from the chamber.

“That’s something the (Ossenfort) administration should review, and if they see any value in any aspect of something the chamber can provide, they would tell us,” Pepe said.

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