Fred Stabbert III | Democrat
Boaters (and swimmers) enjoy the waters of the Delaware River on a recent afternoon.
are up and down
Story by Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY August 6. 2013 This past month, the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA) announced that spending by visitors to the county grew 4.3 percent in 2012 to $364.3 million.
That’s according to an independent report by Tourism Economics, which researched counties throughout the state.
Lodging, food service, transportation, retail & service stations, and recreation all saw spending increases by visitors, with the largest (16.55 percent) in recreation.
Tourism in the county which employs 4,400, or about 18 percent of the local workforce generated $44.2 million in state and local taxes last year, 1.5 percent higher than the year before.
“Of course, we’d always like the numbers to be higher, but I am still very pleased with our continued growth in the tourism industry,” said SCVA President/CEO Roberta Byron-Lockwood.
Outdoors recreation continues to be a strong selling point for Sullivan County, due to its forests and lakes in reasonable driving distance from the NYC metro area.
The city-managed Neversink Reservoir, for example, is on track to exceed last year’s recreational boating figures.
Between Memorial Day and Columbus Day in 2012 when such boating was first introduced on the Neversink 125 people received and used the required city-issued permits to access the reservoir.
NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection spokesperson Adam Bosch said that not quite halfway through 2013’s summer, that number’s already at 78 and climbing.
Down on the Delaware
Numbers, however, fell last year on the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River.
The National Park Service (NPS) released a report this summer showing that recreation visits to the NPS-managed Delaware and environs dropped 5.5 percent from 2011 to 2012.
“We had some rainy weekends,” surmised NPS Supt. Sean McGuinness.
That thought was echoed by Rick Lander, who operates a canoe livery headquartered in Narrowsburg.
His business is highly weather-dependent, especially on the busier weekends.
But he added that contrasting 2012 to 2011 for his company wouldn’t be instructive.
“I can’t compare it to the year before because the Phish concerts really blew it out,” he explained.
Lander, like virtually every lodging owner in the county, found his campgrounds and cabins swamped with Phishgoers in May 2011. Phish, which performed multiple nights at Bethel Woods, is known for its loyal fans who follow the band across the nation.
“We need to have concerts where they stay overnight,” he said, hoping Bethel Woods might woo back Phish and similar performers.
Still, Lander is cautiously optimistic this year will be better than last.
“We’re catching up, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “It all depends on the weather.”
In the meantime, the NPS is forecasting a 2.3 percent increase in visitors for this season though it’s also predicting a 1.7 percent decrease in 2014 (McGuinness attributed that to statistical sway).
As of July 2012, the Upper Delaware saw 79,458 visits, McGuinness said. As of July 2013, visits number 73,614.
Bethel Woods plans ahead
With three sold-out concerts just this past week, Bethel Woods appears on track to have a season better than last summer’s.
“We are very pleased so far with the support the fans have shown the artists and Bethel Woods,” said CEO Darlene Fedun. “We still have a lot more performances on the main stage season to go along with the event gallery performances, films, Harvest Festival weekends, wine and beer festival weekends and holiday market festivals. We are expecting visitors to join us right through December.”
She indicated the nonprofit performing arts venue is mindful of the higher value of overnight visitors.
“We hope that by creating weekend events, visitors stay and enjoy all the amenities Sullivan County has to offer,” she stated. “We are pleased to hear from individuals that businesses are enjoying a good season and hope that we have contributed in some way.”
Where does it go from here?
Meanwhile, the County Legislature doesn’t currently seem inclined to rehash last year’s controversial and highly strained renewal of the SCVA’s contract.
At this time last year, a Request for Proposals (RFP) was being prepared to be sent out, seeking offers to handle the county’s tourism marketing.
SCVA and a newly formed group, Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion, competed for the 2013 contract, which was ultimately won by SCVA in November.
The process, however, brought criticism and charges of politicking down on legislators’ heads, a situation they don’t appear interested in repeating.
In fact, thus far this summer, they haven’t even discussed the tourism contract, said Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson.
Some legislators, like Cora Edwards and Alan Sorensen, want to have that discussion first before they weigh in publicly on the contract.
Sorensen said he particularly wants the discussion to include the SCVA directly.
“We have a well-established organization in place,” he noted.
Legislator Ira Steingart, who chairs the Community and Economic Development Committee to which the SCVA makes monthly reports, plans to schedule such a meeting between legislators and SCVA officials once the summer tourism season is over.
“I want to get input from all the legislators,” he said, explaining that the meeting will go over how well this year’s tourism efforts went and the SCVA’s future plans.
The lack of discussion up to this point in stark contrast to last year’s 10 months of wrangling may bode well for the SCVA.
“I would assume people are satisfied they did react to some of their [legislators’] concerns,” Steingart surmised.
Legislators Samuelson and Jonathan Rouis indicated such satisfaction.
“I think the SCVA does a fantastic job with the limited resources the room tax currently yields,” Rouis noted. “I believe we should enter into a multi-year arrangement.”
But anything beyond another year-long extension of the SCVA’s contract is uncertain at this point, especially since at least one legislator is not as content as Rouis and Samuelson.
“My feeling is that I had requested a different direction from SCVA and provided them with information regarding areas to target in regard to an increase in tourism,” expressed Legislator Cindy Gieger. “I sent info on marketing Sullivan as a destination for wildlife and sports enthusiasts, agriculture, farming publications, farming families in the Amish community, etc. So far they stick to a few niche groups and cannot seem to deliver.
“Keep in mind I am going by their submitted reports to committee monthly,” she continued. “My feeling is much more could be done to get out the ‘small town feel.’”
Byron-Lockwood said the SCVA has heard and responded to the concerns expressed by Gieger and other legislators.
“We’ve been working quite well, hand-in-hand, with them,” she said, noting that the 2013 Travel Guide featured an agritourism section, events like Farmstock have been heavily promoted, and the SCVA now has an active agritourism/ecotourism advisory committee.
She also feels better communication between the SCVA and Legislature has opened legislators’ eyes to all that is being done to market the county’s tourism offerings.
“We’ve tried to do a yeoman’s job with the team we have in place and the tools we have available,” Byron-Lockwood stated.
She hopes those efforts lead to a multi-year contract with the county, especially since the SCVA often purchases ad space, reserves spots at trade shows and plans marketing campaigns months ahead of time.
“For efficiency and effectiveness, and to get the best buying power, you need to do it in advance,” she explained.