By Carol W. LaGrasse
It is the week after Labor Day and the traffic is starting to disappear from the winding roads through New York's Adirondacks. In a few more months, the unemployment rate in the North Country will climb toward eight to ten percent, depending on the county.
Tourism provides much of the economic drive for the Adirondack North Country region, but as the basis of an economy, it has compelling disadvantages, not the least of which is its seasonal basis. As a motive power for the economy, tourism is a trap.
During their presentation last year to the Adirondack Park Agency about the town of Queensbury's successful open space planning and tourism outreach, one of the town planners made a revealing side comment. The town's successful efforts to increase tourism have a downside. The planner for this town on the southeastern edge of the Adirondack just south of Lake George said that the low-paid workers who are needed to serve the tourist industry are finding that, as a result of the higher cost of housing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live near to their jobs.
"Lake Placid has been pricing its work force out of the community," planner Chris Round said about the world-famous Adirondack village in the northern high peaks. "We're looking at the same problem. People have to commute 15-20 miles." The workers cannot afford to live in the towns where they work.
Historically, these workers have been drawn from the local towns and villages, where hard-working independent country people fit their lives for a short period annually around the booming summer tourism industry, and, to a degree involving far fewer job opportunities, around the smaller influx of outsiders for winter skiing activity and snowmobiling. In addition, workers from outside the region flood in for the two summer months. It is not unusual for either men or women to sleep in their cars for the entire season, or to camp out, moving from campground to campground so as not to be recognized as non-recreationists.
Tourism is touted as the route to economic development by heritage area advocates and preservation-oriented regional planning and zoning agencies like New York's Adirondack Park Agency. Yet, the points in favor of tourism may be outweighed in the longer term by the negativesnot just the low wage, seasonal jobs, but vulnerability of the single-focus economy, and the inexorable transition to a gentrified culture that tourism's successful land use planning and outreach breed. For indigenous local people, the tourism trap could be overpowering.
As historic resource-based and other local jobs become more difficult to pursue as a result of government land acquisition for preservation of nature, and government discouragement or downright restrictions on industries and commercial activities that are not harmonious with tourism and a desired wilderness setting, among other factors, tourism becomes more essential to maintain the local economy. Once a plus to be sought after, tourism can become the factor without which the local economy can falter and fail.
This was illustrated in a study of the economy of New York's North Country released this year by the Northern New York Travel and Tourism Research Center and funded by a $247,500 grant through the State University in Potsdam from the federal departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development. The findings of consultants Davidson-Peterson Associates based in Kennebunk, Maine, made headlines in the local newspaper in Hamilton County, which is located entirely within the so-called Adirondack Park, a mixture of government-owned and private land that comprises six million acres of northern New York. The headline of the Hamilton County News on August 10 read, "69% unemployment possible in Ham. Co. if visitors disappear."
The study revealed that each household in Hamilton County would face an average $2,104 increase in real estate taxes to maintain the current level of government services if income from tourism ended. Such an increase would be precipitous for a county with residents so poor that their personal expenditures on health care are too meager to support even a single dentist in the entire county, which has 1,060 school age children.
The study reported that, without the tourism expenditures reported in 2003, the overall unemployment in the combined Adirondack and Thousand Islands regions of northern New York would have reached 23 percent.
In their own independent study, local real estate tax experts reported about the profound impact of tourism on the affordability of homes to local people. Their appraisal differed diametrically from that promoted by tourism development advocates.
Consider a pro-tourism presentation approximately a year ago in the town of Stony Creek, the sparsely populated town where I reside in Warren County in the southeastern Adirondacks. County planning officials and their consultant gave a talk about the exciting prospects of increasing tourism through developing the "First Wilderness Heritage Corridor" along the Hudson River, which forms the town's eastern boundary.
After the Elmer Gantry-mannered consultant had waxed on with the usual platitudes about the need to improve the town to attract tourists, I was appalled to see one local resident raise her hand and apologize, "But we don't have anything in this town."
However, Stony Creek's little town center abounds with things to do and to take pride in the volunteer fire company; a church; a restaurant and two bars at which to relax while enjoying conversation, music and dancing; a general store; one of the first free libraries in the North Country; a restored historic farm and old schoolhouse owned by the historical association; a new town hall which is the seat of government and sponsors youth and senior programs; and a constant flow of people and activity. But what came immediately to mind was the fact that recently three houses in the town center where the owners had died of old age had been priced for one reason or another to be affordable to young families. Such families had moved in, had become part of the town, and their children could be seen playing on the wide lawns. The town center was not a Potemkin village of antique stores and quaint tourist attractions savored by urbanites escaping for a weekend.
However, without year-round young families occupying the mix of old frame houses and modified mobile homes, Stony Creek center would be typical of absentee-owned, gentrified rural tourist traps.
The poignancy of seeing local children playing has not escaped real estate tax experts, according to a report in the independent Adirondack Park Agency Reporter, which is published in Keene Valley by Susan Allen. In their presentation in August to the Adirondack Park Agency about the "Dynamics of Adirondack Real Estate Assessments," three real estate expert tax experts summarized statistics showing that high real estate prices are spreading from lake-front properties to houses in ordinary locations that were inexpensive over past years. The three real estate experts said that local people are being priced out of the market to buy property in the region.
"What I see going on in the hamlets, neighborhoods have become almost totally vacation homes. [There's] nobody playing in the yards except on weekends," said Lake Placid real estate agent Terry Horrocks. "I find this very disturbing."
In their report, the experts outlined the factors driving real estate prices up..
"New York State has a fifty percent ownership and continues to be an active buyer in the market," said Horrocks, according to the Reporter. "[This includes] the purchase of conservation easements, [where] New York State purchases the development rights, restricting the supply."
The report's three co-presenters, which also included the Essex and Hamilton County Real Property Tax Service Agency directors, Bernard Miller and William Hotaling, reported factors related to private landAdirondack Park Agency zoning, large estates, and the forestry industry landholdingsthat keep land in short supply.
"Why is the demand increasing?" asked Horrocks rhetorically. He pointed out the accessibility of the "Adirondack experience" to a large population and other factors.
Ironically, a short supply of land and inevitable gentrification resulting from demand for land resulting from tourism and other factors are already taking their toll in the vast North Country region. It comes down to the deception of relying on tourism as an economic engine to the exclusion of industry, mining, commerce, and even infrastructure development for essentials such as asphalt production and waste disposal. But, more broadly stated, the fault lies in promoting and implementing governmental and preservationist-sponsored policies that preclude the normal give and take of whatever the local populace or outside investors might bring to the region. When tourism, regulation, high-pressure grants, designations like Scenic Byways, and one-sided local and regional planning are used to focus an economy, the ordinary people are trapped. Out-priced, they can find themselves ultimately marginalized and fighting extinction.