By Paul Post
Warren County officials are counting heavily on Lake George winter attractions to boost declining sales tax revenue caused by ongoing national economic woes.
Such income was running 10 percent ahead of last year’s numbers, but declined to 2.9 percent by the end of the third quarter. At the same time, inflation has forced up spending across the board, from higher salaries and retirement costs to rising fuel and utility expense.
“It’s not sustainable,” county Budget Officer and Stony Creek Supervisor Frank Thomas said. “I think the economy is slowing. Interest rates are way up. People don’t have as much money as they would like.”
About $5 million in funding requests for things such as paving projects and new vehicles were denied in the tentative $192 million, 2024 budget unveiled on November 3.
Thomas, board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Geraghty of Warrenburgh and new county Tourism Director Heather Bagshaw discussed such issues during a “State of the County” event held at the Park Theater in downtown Glens Falls with several dozen business and local government officials on hand.
The highly-popular Ice Castles at Charles R. Wood Park in Lake George has been redesigned for a different type of experience called Winter Realm this year. Plans call for a large glycol-cooled skating rink surrounded by colorful light installations, a Polar Pub ice bar and a variety of beautifully designed ice sculptures.
More than 60,000 people visited Ice Castles during its inaugural presence in 2022.
And on Dec. 8, Fort William Henry will unveil a large new Winter’s Dream multi-sensory attraction designed by Montreal-based Moment Factory, which is expected to draw even larger crowds throughout the winter months. The county allocated $3 million in occupancy tax money for the project, which is scheduled to have a five-year run in Lake George.
Moment Factory has done more than 525 shows around the world featuring a blend of advanced lighting, video, architecture, music and special effects that transform venues and events. Clients have included the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Toyota, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the NFL and pop star Madonna.
Bagshaw took over as tourism director about six months ago. For the past 10 years she held a similar position in her native Greene County, home to Hunter Mountain and Windham ski resorts.
She outlined several steps her office is working on to bring more visitors to Warren County throughout the year.
A top New York state-based design companyhas been hired to produce and bring back an an annual travel guide for distribution to travel centers throughout upstate New York, New England, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Also, plans call for launching a newly designed website next spring with more detailed information that will prompt people to look for various recreation and dining experiences the area has to offer.
In addition, Bagshaw believes there’s significant untapped potential for marketing the entire Lake George region internationally. “They’re here already,” she said. “You hear different languages and accents from different countries. I think we can do a lot more.”
But she also stressed the need for improved business-to-business connections. For example, Lake George visitors should be made aware of upcoming Glens Falls holiday events and vice versa, and front desk personnel at area hotels should know what’s scheduled so they can direct people to events and places to eat.
“We have great opportunities this winter,” Bagshaw said. “We have fabulous attractions. The goal is to get everybody to move around. The only way to do that is through partnerships and communication.”
Bagshaw said the Tourism Department is also conducting an economic development study, which could lead to funding opportunities for much-needed projects that can promote growth and job creation.
Gore Mountain, for example, is one of the state’s busiest ski centers, but there isn’t a major hotel in North Creek in large part because of water and sewer service limitations. Securing funding for such infrastructure would encourage a lodging company to invest in the community, which might attract other small businesses, stimulate the local economy and create jobs for area residents.
“It’s not just tourism, you’ve got to look at it from a growth perspective,” Bagshaw said.
On another front, officials discussed pros and cons of short-term rental properties, which generate occupancy tax, another important form of revenue for the county. Occupancy tax money is primarily used to support tourism-related events and activities.
But many hotel and motel owners don’t like short-term rentals because of the competition it presents.
Geraghty said Warrensburg has a local law regulating short-term rentals that is effective because it’s enforced. Sites must undergo a county inspection before welcoming guests.”To me it’s all about safety,” he said.
Bagshaw said she’d like to see a place on the website where all short-term rental properties are listed, and allows them to book stays as well.
Like sales tax, occupancy tax revenue fell off considerably during the third quarter as well, which Thomas also attributed to overall economic conditions.
However, he said county wide assessed valuation is up 5 percent this year, a reflection of business and residential development, helping keep the tax rate down. Of the $192 million tentative budget, approximately $49.8 million will come
from property taxes, an increase of $1.2 million (2.5 percent).
Among the major costs contributing to increased spending are salaries and retirement costs, which are going up $1.2 million and $1.6 million, respectively.
Like many area businesses, Geraghty said the county is experiencing staffing shortages, especially in the Public Works Department, which has 16 vacancies. There’s also a need for more corrections personnel at the county jail, he said.