Tourism officials make their case
By Dan Hust
BETHEL What’s on the mind of the Catskills’ tourism industry?
State and local politicians found out at Thursday’s Catskills Legislative Reception, hosted at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
Organized by the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association (NYSH&TA) and the Catskill Association of Tourism Services, the event served as a lobbying effort of sorts but mostly by people who can’t routinely trek to Albany to catch legislators in their offices.
“This is a critical time,” remarked NYSH&TA Vice President Jan Marie Chesterton to a crowd of more than 100 area tourism professionals and business owners.
Though every dollar spent on tourism brings “huge returns” to the state, Chesterton said current economics are endangering the entire industry. Thus, NYSH&TA has organized more than a dozen of these receptions throughout the state.
A packet handed out that evening detailed the concerns of area tourism agencies, including the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA).
• Topping the list is the need to identify a “multi-year, predictable tourism funding stream” for the I Love NY program.
“A formula would be in place so that the funding levels could be adjusted on a yearly basis depending on success of the program and fluctuations in the marketplace,” reads the report in the packet.
• Second on the list is property tax relief, especially for small tourism-related companies, which make up 95 percent of the industry.
• The industry is also pushing for a switch from the state’s maximum lodging and meal rates for government travel. The SCVA is the only visitors’ bureau in the entire state that still has no per-diem rate permission, meaning area hotels and eateries can only charge government agencies a maximum of $70 per day for a room and $39 for a day’s worth of meals.
“This issue dramatically impacts the competitive edge that this association’s members require when bidding on state, federal and not-for-profit conferences and conventions,” reads the report.
(However, the report also lists neighboring counties’ per-diem rates, all of which are higher than Sullivan’s.)
• Though the Empire Zone program is facing deep cuts in Governor David Paterson’s proposed state budget, tourism officials would like to see the program expanded to include even more tourism-oriented businesses in the area.
• The area’s tourism agencies support expanding casino gaming in Sullivan County, including the current proposal to legalize non-Indian gambling.
• Officials said they’d like to see more college and BOCES curricula developed to increase the size and skills of the region’s tourism workforce.
• The switching of hunting season’s opening day from a Monday to a Saturday has not gone over well in the business community, and those gathered at Thursday’s event agreed it should be switched back so as to encourage more visitor spending.
• Widening Route 17 and upgrading its designation to Interstate 86 are also supported.
• The involved associations oppose any increase in fishing license fees.
• Restoring passenger rail and international air service to Sullivan County are also being requested for state legislators to consider.
• Already unlikely to be approved by the state, the NYRI proposal to route high-voltage powerlines down the Delaware River valley is opposed by local tourism groups.
• NYSH&TA also included in the packet its opposition to providing paid family leave benefits to tourism employees (expected to be argued in Albany this year), along with opposition to any legislation that would force employers to split gratuities with the employees for whom they were intended. NYSH&TA currently advocates for the ability of an employer to keep any or even all of the gratuities and service charges a customer pays, even if those amounts are for a specific employee’s services.
Audience members were invited to speak Thursday evening on their concerns, as well, and locals like Sonja Hedlund of Callicoon Center argued that more money should be spent on “green” initiatives.
“We grow the food here that people in New York City eat,” she pointed out.
She and others said Sullivan County in particular is well-positioned to tout its “greenness” not just in the natural landscape but with man-made efforts like hotels and the proposed green technology park at the college.
“We remain committed to trying to ‘green up’ wherever we can,” replied Sullivan County Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis. “We don’t think this is a fleeting fad.”
Sandy Schultz of the National Park Service’s Upper Delaware National and Scenic River agreed, saying her group’s theme this year is “No One Left Inside,” addressing what she calls “nature deficit disorder.”
NYS Senator John Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther said they heard what attendees were saying and will take that back to Albany.
“Right now people are paralyzed by fear and are not spending money,” Bonacic observed. “... We have to get people spending again, because that’s 70 percent of our economy.”
He and Gunther evidenced disappointment with the governor’s proposed state budget, noting it decreases tourism expenditures by 41 percent.
“This is not a very prudent cut,” said Bonacic, who later added that he hopes to find agreement in Albany and ultimately, from state voters to bring legalized gambling to Sullivan County.
Gunther pointed out that the area is also poised to benefit from the completion of the Concord and agribusiness park projects, plus various housing developments all of which she feels will add to the region’s attractiveness.
“This is really an important industry,” she said of tourism, “one we have to support in New York State.”