FULTON COUNTY – If plans for the Great Sacandaga Lake History Museum go forward as envisioned, Fulton County will have itself a sparkling gem of a tourism site. The $1.2 million project, which calls for a modern visitor center, hiking paths and an overlook onto the shimmering Great Sacandaga, is the type of attraction that could be the envy of any neighborhood – a beacon built on a hill.
Unfortunately, the museum may also be the wedge that ultimately drives two neighbors apart.
On Tuesday, the Fulton County Board of Supervisors is likely to vote to move its tourism operations in-house, ending its decades-long reliance on a local chamber of commerce to provide such services.
Fulton County leaders say the move away from the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce has been floated for several years, and has been part of the conversation ever since the chamber began providing tourism services for Montgomery County nearly a decade ago.
Talks of a departure, though, escalated last August.
The catalyst? The museum and the larger “Destination: Fulton County” strategic plan, according to Perth Supervisor Greg Fagan, who serves as chairman of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors.
It was in August when the supervisors voted 16-1 to endorse plans for allocating the county’s $10.4 million in U.S. American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding toward the strategic plan, including the museum project. Rightly, the strategic plan, which in addition to the museum includes allocations such as $1 million to the Parkhurst Field Foundation to help fund the construction of a top-notch youth baseball facility, has Fulton County feeling pretty good about the state of its tourism industry. Those positive vibes are bolstered by the fact that tourism dollars have increased in Fulton County over the last eight years, from $50 million a year to more than $70 million, according to Mark Kilmer, president and CEO of the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.
But the Sacandaga museum project has faced close scrutiny. In April, Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino released a report criticizing the county for relying on an outdated appraisal and overpaying for the 30-plus-acre parcel in the town of Northampton, on which a future museum would sit.
County leaders, though, continue to bristle at the suggestion that $520,000 was too much to pay. Instead, they focus on their strong position and say they want to capitalize on the current climate by taking tourism operations into their own hands. Their reaction, likely to be solidified with Tuesday’s vote, is to essentially say that since they are doing so well, they don’t need anyone else’s help.
To me, the likely decision has the feel of an easily offended kid, sensitive to criticism, bringing a new toy to school, but refusing to let anyone else touch it. I worry it’s a shortsighted move that could find Fulton and Montgomery counties too often playing alone.
In the near term, I can understand why Fulton County leaders are enticed by the thought of going it alone. While Fulton County spends about $178,000 per year on a tourism contract with the chamber, Montgomery County pays less than $100,000, a number that dropped from about $120,000 prior to the pandemic, according to Kilmer. Despite uneven contributions, the counties have essentially been equally splitting the services of Anne Boles, the Fulton and Montgomery County Tourism director.
I can also understand Fulton County’s in-house tourism desires, even though plans call for a tourism budget of more than $250,000, up from that $178,000. I understand the additional spending because the county argues that the in-house plan is essentially a better use of the collected occupancy tax revenue, of which the county reports substantial reserves.
So if the county feels like it can get a lot more service by spending a little bit more of the tourism funding that it’s not currently maximizing, I accept that as a reasonable tradeoff. (The county promises residents won’t see any changes to their tax bills as a result.)
The problem is that this move inward could turn two counties that share a lengthy border, a community college and rural values into legitimate rivals.
To be sure, leaders in both counties will be the first to try to dispel such concerns. In fact, leaders in both counties have already gotten ahead of the issue, and Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said last week that the two counties will continue to partner on tourism in some capacity, whether it be on events or networking opportunities.
But by not sharing a tourism office, that picture quickly becomes more complicated.
Consider that if Fulton County gets its own tourism operation up and running, the plan right now would be to hire Boles, the chamber’s current tourism director. That means that rather than have Boles serve as a chamber employee, dividing her time between efforts for both counties, she’ll become a Fulton County employee focusing her attention solely on the northern county.
Montgomery County leaders are just supposed to accept that Fulton County plans to keep the region’s leading tourism professional all to itself?
Interviewed last week by Daily Gazette reporter Jason Subik, Montgomery County officials said they were looking into their own plans to handle their county’s tourism in-house.
“We would be prepared to take that on ourselves, if need be,” said County Legislature Chairman Michael Pepe.
While it’s true that Montgomery County leaders, like Fulton County leaders, have long weighed the pros and cons of running tourism through the joint chamber of commerce, it’s hard not to view their latest mulling as a reaction to what’s being discussed in Fulton County.
So when I hear Pepe say, “We’ve always looked at this in somewhat of a suspect fashion . . . wondering whether we can get more bang for our buck by doing it ourselves,” I hear: “You won’t let us play with your toy, we’ll just go and play somewhere else.”
That’s where this becomes a slippery slope for the neighboring counties. For all the assurances Fulton County leaders have made that in-house tourism isn’t about putting the chamber out of business, such an outcome clearly threatens the chamber’s future.
All businesses are dependent on tourism to some degree. So with two independent, county-run tourism entities, it may very well make sense to simply have two independent chambers — and two independent chambers would be a step backward, leading to competing business interests and an emphasis on competition rather than collaboration. That could be detrimental to a region in desperate need of revitalization.
Fulton County leaders said no matter the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, the plan is to continue to have some relationship with the chamber for tourism services. But that relationship may be as little as spending $10,000 to help run the website www.44lakes.com/blog, Kilmer said.
That type of contract would be little more than the county throwing the chamber a bone, Kilmer said. And no meaningful relationships, other than ones with man’s best friend, involve bone throwing.
A major concern is that Fulton County leaders suggested last week that Kilmer is the problem. “The board isn’t really that satisfied with the [chamber’s] leadership,” Stead admitted after he and Fagan failed to clearly articulate what exactly the chamber hasn’t delivered. The best county leaders could come up with is that the chamber has been slow to put on promised events during a pandemic.
The Fulton County supervisors’ gripes with Kilmer may be legitimate and justified, but instead of talking through the issues with Kilmer and attempting to work out differences, the supervisors are poised to cut ties, making a major change based on a personal issue. Such a move doesn’t instill confidence in the county’s ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with Montgomery County officials should friction arise as their tourism departments part ways.
It’s true that Fulton County’s tourism industry appears to be headed in the right direction. But Montgomery County has its own reasons for optimism. After all, its tourism numbers are up from $40 million in 2017 to more than $60 million last year, according to Kilmer. Plus, Montgomery County has its own roughly $9.5 million in ARPA grant money and its own tourism gems to build upon. For instance the Erie Canalway is a historical treasure that could have a real future as a recreational tourism draw. Or, who knows, E29 Labs, the planned cannabis cultivation facility in the former Beech-Nut plant in Canajoharie, could one day help the Mohawk Valley become to cannabis tourism what the Finger Lakes region is to wine tourism. Long way off, I realize.
Still, it’s very possible to imagine Montgomery County leaders, maybe a decade from now, touting sparkling tourism offerings along the Thruway while Fulton County leaders are left sulking in an already aging museum off a country road up north. Then and only then – with a smaller slice of the region’s tourism market suddenly staring them in the face – may Fulton County leaders look back on this moment and wish they had been willing to share.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @Upstate Waite.
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