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Tourism debate considers how best to promote Lake George region

They are adjacent to each other, but how leaders in Warren and Washington counties handle tourism promotion could not be more different.

Warren County had a pot of $4.3 million to spend on promotion this year, money that comes in from a 4 percent “occupancy tax” on rooms at the hundreds of hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfasts around the county.

Washington County, conversely, has just a handful of motels and inns and measures its occupancy tax receipts in the thousands, not millions. So last year, the county spent $10,000 on tourism promotion as county supervisors worked to figure out how to best promote the county to visitors going forward.

The spending differences highlight the fact that how elected officials in municipalities choose to promote their areas to visitors varies greatly from county to county and region to region.

Warren County’s Tourism Department has come under fire in recent months from business owners, particularly hoteliers, who say occupancy has been dropping and tourism signs are troubling.

While occupancy tax and sales tax receipts have grown annually, they say that increase comes from higher rates on hotel rooms, not more people booking rooms.

The Warren County Lodging Association called earlier this year for a virtual disbanding of the county Tourism Department, with more funding from occupancy tax receipts instead put toward a revamping of the region’s conventions and visitors bureau (CVB), which is currently run through the Lake George Chamber of Commerce.

County supervisors opted not to take that drastic step this fall when putting together the 2018 budget, but instead agreed to give $125,000 in additional funding to the CVB, with county Tourism Department personnel providing more assistance to the CVB as it works to bring more groups to the region.

Business leaders’ proposal

A dozen or so of the Lake George region’s most influential hoteliers and lodgers have frequently been present for recent county Tourism Committee meetings and were part of a group that put out a report over the summer calling for major changes to how Warren County tourism promotion is done and how bed tax money is spent.

They have said Warren County’s system of funneling most of its occupancy tax money through a government-run agency is an anomaly in the region, and that most of the promotional decisions in counties like Saratoga, Essex, Hamilton and Albany are mainly made through non-governmental entities.

Frank Dittrich, a partner and manager of a number of Lake George properties who is spokesman for Warren County Lodging Association, said the organization is concerned that the region is falling behind other destinations in the Northeast in terms of visitor numbers and hotel stays.

He said the lodgers are concerned with the lack of metrics and lack of a plan to reverse the trend. Room occupancy is vital because it leads to more occupancy tax for promotion as well as spending and sales tax receipts at other businesses, he said.

Some have questioned whether the Tourism Department was producing the “bang for the buck” that the bed tax funding provides.

Dick Carlson, marketing director at The Georgian Resort in Lake George, said a review of his employer’s online referral data showed a 90 percent drop in referrals of potential guests from the county’s tourism website, visitlakegeorge.com, between 2014 and 2017.

“The last three seasons have seen a decline in the ‘relative search’ for Lake George and additional decline when compared relative to Lake Placid. In addition, many lodging websites have confirmed a profound steep decline in referrals from Warren County Tourism’s website and from ‘organic Google search,’ “ Carlson wrote. “Trends in search and trends in actual website visits for Lake George, NY accommodation properties are down for 2017 compared to 2016. Many metrics are down substantially, reflecting a grave concern for many digital marketing initiatives.”

Warren County has not been tracking the metrics or relying on a “fact-based” approach as other destinations do, and as the CVB pledges to do going forward, Dittrich said.

“We can’t just count on good weather,” he said. “Others are figuring out how to do it, and we need to, too.”

County tourism leaders have disputed some of the Lodging Association’s numbers, and also pointed out that the addition of numerous hotels along the Northway and the Marriott in Lake George, as well as the increased popularity of room and home-sharing businesses such as AirBNB, have undoubtedly hurt existing hotel receipts.

From 2013 through 2016, the STR (Smith Trend Report) shows year-to-date room sales are up 1.8 percent over 2016, county tourism Director Joanne Conley said.

For the same period, countywide sales tax revenue has increased 4.9 percent, occupancy tax collections have increased 12.5 percent and hotel forecaster Tourism Economics’ direct traveler spending has increased 7.7 percent, Conley pointed out.

“The health of the tourism industry in the Lake George area is strong and there is measurable growth across a number of industry segments to support this. If you look at a snapshot of the past four years, you can see that tourism indicators are showing sustained growth in Warren County,” Conley said.

Different tactics

While the lodgers have questioned how Warren County spends its money, an analysis of tourism promotion around the state found that there are varied approaches in different regions, with counties’ agencies and staffs involved to different degrees.

Jill Delaney, president and chief executive officer of the New York State Tourism Industry Association, said decisions on how to spend promotional funding are made in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is done regionally, as is the case in the Finger Lakes and Lake Placid area, using “destination marketing organizations” that draw funding from bed tax and/or municipalities, or by counties, towns, cities and villages individually.

“It’s done differently around the state,” she said.

Warren County has a nine-person Tourism Department and has put just over $2 million from occupancy tax receipts into its Tourism Department budget each of the past several years, $380,027 of which was put to salaries last year. The state provides some matching funds through the I Love New York promotional program which Delaney said is done when the state reviews local efforts to qualify for the funding.

Warren County’s Tourism Department continues to work closely with the Lake George Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau and Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, she said. Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson, who chairs the county board’s Occupancy Tax Coordination Committee, has also taken steps to create an “advisory group” of business leaders to provide the county board with ideas on how to spend occupancy tax proceeds.

Conley said practices evolve within organizations depending on what works and what trends are being noted.

“What works well for us might not work best for somebody else,” Conley said. “It’s not boilerplate.”

Supervisors from neighboring Washington County are in the midst of reviewing “requests for proposal” from businesses that would contract with the county for tourism promotion.

Laura Oswald, Washington County’s director of economic development, said the county has tried a number of approaches to grow tourism over the years. But with little funding thanks to a lack of occupancy tax money, there is only so much that county leaders have been willing to spend to promote the county’s tourism offerings.

“We are very, very different from Warren County because we have no revenue,” Oswald said.

Saratoga County does not have a county-run tourism department, but the county’s law established a tourism “advisory” committee to guide occupancy tax spending.

In 2015, the county got state approval for a law change that allows for use of some of its occupancy tax receipts for “economic development” instead of just tourism promotion.

Essex County promotions are done in large part through the Lake Placid-based Regional Office of Sustained Tourism, (ROOST), which draws funding from Essex, Hamilton and Franklin counties. Those counties also promote themselves individually as well, though.

Delaney said debates in counties and regions over how best to spend promotional funding are not unusual.

“Warren County isn’t the first county to go through this, and it won’t be the last,” she said.

Modernization

The Warren County Tourism Department has taken a number of steps to modernize its approach in recent years, using more social media interaction and cutting several “niche” print publications in favor of spending money on a more modern digital approach, Conley said.

The agency launched a new, more interactive and mobile device-friendly website earlier this year, which resulted in a spike in visits during the first few months it has been live, Conley said.

She said search engine data has showed that the new site has seen increased visits, compared to the old site.

“Our metrics show that user sessions for the first five months (of the new website) already outpace all of 2016,” Conley said.

The department’s leading social media platform, Facebook, is approaching a quarter-million followers who are truly engaged in the content shared, she said. The cost “is pennies on the dollar and generates highly coveted peer-to-peer recommendations,” she said.

By most indications, including water and sewer flow readings kept in the village of Lake George, the summer of 2017 was a strong one, Conley said.

For many of the lodgers, that has not resulted in growing business, however.

Carlson, from The Georgian, said he believes the county’s tourism leaders need to hold a “summit” to plot a course of action.

Dittrich said the county has the assets to significantly grow its visitor numbers, if marketing is done correctly. That means putting more money toward promotion, to compete with other destinations that spend markedly more already.

“The economic opportunity for the county is staggering,” he said.


Washington
AP
Gorsuch bolsters conservative credentials in 1st year on court

WASHINGTON — More than 2,000 conservatives in tuxedos and gowns recently filled Union Station’s main hall for a steak dinner and the chance to cheer the man who saved the Supreme Court from liberal control.

Justice Neil Gorsuch didn’t disappoint them, just as he hasn’t in his first seven months on the Supreme Court.

“Tonight I can report that a person can be both a publicly committed originalist and textualist and be confirmed to the Supreme Court,” Gorsuch said to sustained applause from members of the Federalist Society, using terms by which conservatives often seek to distinguish themselves from more liberal judges.

The 50-year-old justice has been almost exactly what conservatives hoped for and liberals dreaded when he joined the court in April. He has consistently, even aggressively, lined up with the court’s most conservative justices. He has even split with Chief Justice John Roberts, viewed by some as insufficiently conservative because of his two opinions upholding President Barack Obama’s health law.

During arguments, Gorsuch has asked repeatedly about the original understanding of parts of the Constitution and laws, and he has raised questions about some long-standing court precedents, including the civil rights landmark ruling on “one person, one vote.”

Liberals’ despair about Gorsuch goes beyond his judicial actions. He occupies a seat once held by Justice Antonin Scalia which they thought Obama would get to fill. But Senate Republicans refused to consider Obama’s nominee, a strategy that paid off when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the White House.

At the Federalist Society, Gorsuch recognized the improbable turn of events that led him from an appellate judgeship in his native Colorado to America’s highest court.

If someone had told Gorsuch a year ago what would soon transpire, “I would have said that you had taken way too much advantage of my home state’s generous drug laws,” he said.

Gorsuch likes to remind audiences of his relative youth, despite his head of silver hair, suggesting a long tenure on the bench. In front of a nonpartisan audience last month, he talked about his teenage daughters and the regular, early morning 17-mile bike rides along the C&O canal that he does with a friend.

He spoke fondly of the horses, goats, chickens and rabbits on the small farm where his family lived outside Boulder, Colorado, before moving to the Washington area this year. He enthusiastically recounted ski outings and his favorite moguls.

Early reviews of Gorsuch’s time on the court have varied with the ideological bent of his reviewers.

While his confirmation was pending, the liberal Alliance for Justice worried that Gorsuch would often embrace the most conservative outcome on the high court.

“Our concerns were confirmed,” said Nan Aron, the group’s president.

Daniel Epps, a Washington University law professor in St. Louis and onetime law clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, said he finds Gorsuch’s style sometimes grating, less so the substance of his questions at arguments.

During a high-profile argument about politics in redistricting in October, Gorsuch began a question by suggesting that “maybe we can just for a second talk about the arcane matter, the Constitution.”

To Epps, the tone was all wrong, especially for the new guy on the nine-member court. “I’d love to see a bit more recognition that the court deals with really hard questions that many people, including his colleagues, have struggled with for a long time. If someone thinks he has all the answers, maybe he’s missing something important,” Epps said.

Some of Gorsuch’s choices of where to speak — with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the Trump International Hotel and at the Federalist Society dinner — also have fed perceptions that rubbed his critics the wrong way.

The dinner, Aron said, “was just the latest stop on Neil Gorsuch’s thank-you tour to honor the people who got him what should have been Merrick Garland’s job.” Garland, an appeals court judge, was the Obama nominee whom the Senate blocked.

“I think he could have done a better job certainly in the public appearances he chooses to make to sort of send the signal that he’s not a Republican justice, he’s a justice,” said Epps, who also co-hosts the Supreme Court-focused First Mondays podcast.

His co-host, Ian Samuel, said there has been “a hysterical overreaction” to Gorsuch’s questions in the courtroom. Samuel, a professor at Harvard Law School and former Scalia law clerk, said Gorsuch has an obvious interest in questions about accountability in the American system of government and control over the court system. “It’s better that he puts it out there and says this is who I am. I don’t think he cares whether some people think it’s shocking,” Samuel said.

Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive vice president who has advised Trump on judicial picks, also took issue with Gorsuch’s critics when he introduced the justice at the dinner. “They mischaracterize candor and a demand for rigorous analysis as polarizing,” Leo said.

Gorsuch made no apologies either for the substance of his questions and writing, or his style. He talked at length about the importance of seeking out the meaning of the Constitution and laws as they were understood when they written.

“Originalism has regained its place at the table of constitutional interpretation, and textualism in the reading of statutes has triumphed. And neither one is going anywhere on my watch,” Gorsuch said.


Washington
AP
Congress coming back to crush of business in a fraught time

WASHINGTON — The crush of unfinished business facing lawmakers when they return to the Capitol would be daunting even if Washington were functioning at peak efficiency.

It’s an agenda whose core items — tax cuts, a potential government shutdown, lots of leftover spending bills — could unravel just as easily as advance in factionalism, gamesmanship and a toxic political environment.

There’s only a four-week window until a Christmas deadline, barely enough time for complicated negotiations even if December stays on the rails. And that’s hardly a sure bet in President Donald Trump’s capital.

Trump and congressional leaders plan a meeting Tuesday to discuss how to sidestep a shutdown and work though the legislative to-do list.

For the optimistic, it’s plain that Democrats and Republicans have reasons to cooperate, particularly on spending increases for the Pentagon and domestic agencies whose budgets otherwise would be frozen. An additional round of hurricane aid should be bipartisan, and efforts to reauthorize a popular health care program for children seem to be on track.

Republicans are advancing their cherished tax cut measure under special rules that mean Senate Democrats cannot use delaying tactics. The measure passed the House just before the Thanksgiving break and moves to the Senate floor this coming week.

After the Senate GOP’s failure on health care this summer, the majority party is under enormous pressure to produce a victory on taxes. Still, GOP deficit hawks such as Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona remain uneasy about the overhaul.

While Democrats are largely sidelined on taxes, they hold leverage over a mix of budget-related issues.

First, there’s the need to avert a government shutdown after a temporary spending bill expires on Dec. 8. The most likely scenario, congressional aides say, is for an additional extension until Christmas. On a parallel track are talks to raise spending limits that are keeping agency budgets essentially frozen unless those caps are raised. If that happens, then negotiations could begin in earnest on a massive catchall spending measure in hopes of having it signed into law by year’s end.

Taxes have gotten all the attention so far, but the showdown over a potential shutdown right before Christmas could soon take center stage. Democrats are counting on GOP fears of a holiday season closure to ensure Republican concessions during December talks.

Both sides would have to make concessions that may upset partisans in either party. Just as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fears a revolt on the right, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California risks an uprising on her left. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., round out the quartet of top negotiators.

“Everybody’s got complicated politics. The chance of short-term failure is pretty high — short-term failure being a shutdown,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist. “But the four of them, assuming they don’t want to shut the government down for a long time, are going to have to come to an accommodation.”

Talks on the spending caps are stuck, however, aides say. A GOP offer to lift the Pentagon budget by more than $54 billion next year and nondefense limits by $37 billion was rejected by Democrats demanding balance between the two sides of the ledger.

Long-delayed battles over immigration and Trump’s promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border are huge obstacles. Many Democrats whose votes are needed on the spending bills insist they won’t vote for any legislation that includes the wall. Trump remains dead set on his $1.6 billion request for a down payment on the project.

Those same Democrats also insist that Congress must act by year’s end to protect immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and whose protected status is set to lapse next year. Trump backs the idea despite issuing an executive order reversing the Obama administration protections, starting next spring. Conservatives oppose drawing in the immigration issue to legislation to keep the government running.

Hurricane relief is adding one more wrinkle.

Congress has approved more than $50 billion in aid in response to a series of devastating hurricanes. The most recent request by the White House is the largest yet at $44 billion, but it’s not nearly enough to satisfy the powerful Texas delegation, which is pressing behind the scenes for more.

“Completely inadequate,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. “We must do far more to rebuild, repair and allow Texans to return to normal as quickly as possible.”

Trump is a wild card. He warmed to the idea of cutting deals with Democrats after a September pact with Schumer and Pelosi to lift the government’s debt ceiling.

He promised Democratic leaders that he would sign legislation to give the young immigrants legal status — provided border security is addressed as well.

But that demand on border security came with a long list of conditions subsequently added by the White House. Among them: building his Mexico border wall, overhauling the green card system and strengthening measures against people who stay after their visas expire.

Trump has not really engaged on the year-end agenda, however, and his impulsiveness could be a liability. He almost disowned an omnibus spending bill in May after media accounts portrayed the measure as a win for Democrats.