JOHNSTOWN – The Fulton County Board of Supervisors voted 14-5 Tuesday to create a Visitors Bureau Division within the county Planning Department, along with and a $62,000-a-year tourism coordinator position, effectively ending the county’s long public-private partnership with the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Before the vote, the board listened to eight public speakers who were all against the county’s push to bring tourism promotion “in-house” with county personnel directing the effort.
Mark Kilmer, president of the Chamber of Commerce, gave his pitch for why the county should stick with them, citing its 40-year history of promoting tourism in partnership with the county government.
“In 2014, the dollars spent annually by visiting tourists was $50.5 million and, in just eight short years to 2021, our program had driven that number up to $72.4 million, an incredible increase of 42%,” he said. “Those outside dollars [from tourists] go straight into the pockets of Fulton County businesses, and we think that kind of success deserves reward, or maybe you didn’t know. I don’t know if you haven’t been informed or what, but that’s what we’ve been doing all of these years.”
Caroga Supervisor Scott Horton, who also serves as the board’s vice chairman, spoke for the majority in favor of the change. He said he believes the chamber has done a lot for the businesses in his town, but he still favors the county controlling tourism promotion.
“This board decided a long time ago that tourism is important for the county of Fulton,” Horton said. “It’s not our choice to have a chamber that serves two masters, both Montgomery and Fulton counties, so we decided, and we’re deciding with this action, that we want the focus of the taxpayers of the county of Fulton to have 100% of those dollars spent on Fulton County.
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“I’m not saying it’s not being equally divided out. But I do know one thing, if we take this over in the way that we’re looking at doing, we will know 100% certain. We also will know about the metrics of performance. We listen to the chamber and they say they increased tourism dollars, but we didn’t generate those numbers. If we bring this in-house, we will be generating our own numbers with data we have developed.”
In opposition, Gloversville 2nd Ward Supervisor Frank Lauria, the county’s liaison to the chamber, said he’s concerned about the number of layoffs that will occur at the chamber if the county cuts off its support for the non-profit organization, and he doesn’t like the way the change was proposed without his consultation.
“I knew this was possibly coming down the road, but nobody talked to me on the side and said we’re going to go with a tourism person and who that person is going to be,” he said.
Perth Supervisor Greg Fagan, the current chairman of the board, has said the board will likely attempt to hire Anne Boles, current director of tourism development for the chamber, to serve as county’s tourism coordinator.
Kilmer has said the loss of the chamber promotion contract will result in layoffs at the chamber because the tourism funding from both Fulton and Montgomery counties accounts for about 20% to 25% of its approximately $500,000 annual budget, not counting pass-through grant spending from both counties, which has to be spent specifically on tourism events. Kilmer has said the loss of tourism revenue from one or both counties will not result in the end of the chamber, but will alter how it operates.
Arguing against the change, Gloversville 5th Ward Supervisor Greg Young said it makes little sense for the county to get out of its partnership with the chamber after spending much of the last two decades working to privatize several county services, including the county nursing home, all in an attempt to save money. He said the chamber’s status as a private sector nonprofit enables it to get its employees to work on the weekends much cheaper than the county will.
“After hearing from a number of public speakers, and members of the public who reached out to me before the meeting, I think we ought to take a pause and renew conversations with the chamber,” Young said. “Most significantly, I’m concerned about costs and responsibilities and the chamber expense has been very little over the years, whereas preliminary estimates already called for a significant increase in costs.”
Fulton County spent $178,373 in 2022 to contract with the chamber in order to do things such as act as the county’s Tourism Promotion Agency for the annual state Tourism Matching Funds Program, which accounts for about $50,000 of the overall total, execute “coordinated marketing” for another $20,000, and organize three special events for $30,000.
Since 2020, the chamber has organized two special events for the county, the Walleye Ice Fishing Tournament and Outdoor Adventure Day, centered around the Route 29 and Route 30 corridor, but, this year, the county wanted an additional event. Kilmer has said the chamber would make certain a third event happened in 2023 if the contract were renewed.
County officials have said for 2023 the county-run tourism plan will cost an estimated $253,837, including the cost of the tourism coordinator’s salary plus $29,750 in “fringe” benefits for a full-time county employee, bringing the total cost of the position to $91,760.
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Proponents of the plan have said the entire cost of the visitors bureau division will be paid for by tourists from outside of the county, citing the tax revenue from the first three years of the county’s “bed tax” on the sale of hotel rooms as proof — $264,444 in 2019; $215,670 in 2020 and $275,327 in 2021.
One of the major sources of opposition to the creation the Visitors Bureau Division has come from either members of law enforcement or proponents of more county money being spent on law enforcement.
The issue of tourism spending versus more money for law enforcement personnel was highlighted when Sheriff Richard Giardino criticized the board for not adopting his proposal to convert the sheriff’s deputies retirement program from 25-years-of-service before receipt of a full pension down to 20 years. The change would have had an upfront cost of $880,000, or lesser annual payments for a total greater cost spread out over more years.
Giardino later criticized the board for spending $520,000 from the county’s $10.4 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to purchase a 37-acre parcel in the Northampton for the purpose of building the Great Sacandaga Lake Museum Interpretive Center, a concept said to be important to the creation of the new visitors bureau. Giardino issued a report in April criticizing the board for not having a current appraisal for the land and instead using one from six years ago, as well as for the fact that the project will require ongoing personnel costs whenever it’s built, which the ARPA federal guidelines discouraged and was one of the reasons county officials said the money couldn’t be spent on the sheriff’s deputies instead.
During the public comment period Tuesday, Mary Ellen Charles, of ADK Realty in Caroga, said the chamber has helped her business tremendously. She said the county should be spending more to deal with opioid-related problems.
“Why isn’t that money going to police, to DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), to other places that need help?” she asked. “Our chamber is doing a fabulous job, and I don’t understand defunking it and making it be a county project now.”
Later in the meeting, the board voted unanimously in favor of a late addition to the agenda, a resolution sponsored by Gloversville 6th Ward Supervisor Warren Greene to purchase two new patrol cars for the Sheriff’s Department at a cost of $98,000.
After the meeting, Fagan said it is still his inclination for the county to contract with the chamber to continue operating the www.44lakes.com/blog.
“That’s still in discussion, going through our budget process, not sure who’s going to get the opportunity to reach out to the chamber to see what they’re interested in doing for us, but we believe we need a strong chamber, but we believe tourism belongs in-house, for many reasons,” he said.
Opposition to the plan on the board broke down mostly by geography with four of Gloversville’s six supervisors — Democrats Marie Born (W-1), Frank Lauria (W-2), Greg Young (W-5) and Republican Charlie Potter (W-4) — joining with Broadalbin Supervisor Bruce Van Genderen in voting no. Born, Lauria, Young and Van Genderen each gave speeches in opposition to the change, but Potter did not.
Voting yes were: Gloversville 3rd Ward Supervisor John Blackmon and 6th Ward Supervisor Warren Greene, who broke from the majority of their city’s caucus in supporting the change, joined by town supervisors David Howard (Bleecker), Scott Horton (Caroga), Todd Bradt (Ephratah) Jack Wilson (Town of Johnstown), Richard Argotsinger (Mayfield), James Groff (Northampton), Cynthia Breh (Oppenheim), Greg Fagan (Perth), Richard Fogarty (Stratford), and all of the city of Johnstown Supervisors — Jared Goderie (W-1), Michael Kinowski (W-2) and Michael Bowman (W-4) — except 3rd Ward Supervisor John “Jack” Callery, who was absent.
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