The Warren County Board of Supervisors should get its money’s worth from the $27,600 it recently paid BBG & G Advertising & Public Relations for a county tourism study, and the way to start is to reclaim control of its bed tax money.
The comprehensive study made many recommendations but the strongest one was for the county to consolidate its efforts to market the county as a tourism destination.
“You need an overall brand, marketing the entire county as a destination. You have to start thinking as a county,” Deborah Garry, owner of the firm, told the supervisors.
She criticized the fragmented approach the county has been taking, and by doing that she was taking direct aim at the way the pot of more than $4 million a year in occupancy tax receipts get distributed. Supervisors should pay attention.
Now, about half of the money gets used to fund the county Tourism Department. The rest is split up for special efforts, such as the fight against invasive species and a push to improve the Glens Falls Civic Center; money given to each town to fund its own events; and amounts decided on by the supervisors to support larger events such as Americade or tourism-oriented operations such as Adirondack Sports Complex in Queensbury.
No single standard is applied when making funding decisions, and no overall strategy guides the use of this large pot of money.
Instead of taking this scattershot approach, supervisors should allocate most of the money for use by the county Tourism Department to pursue a coherent, long-term strategy for attracting a steady stream of visitors. It might be necessary for the department to hire a new employee or two.
The uses to which supervisors have put bed tax receipts can all be justified, but the current system – in which event promoters appear before the board to make direct appeals for funding – has a tendency toward inertia. Each year, event organizers expect to get at least as much as they did the year before. This year, for example, Lake George Supervisor Dennis Dickinson complained when funding for the Americade motorcycle rally was cut from $50,000 to $45,000.
If the Tourism Department were in charge, it could examine whether it makes sense for the county to continue to fund at a high level well-established for-profit events like Americade. The department could consider whether money would be better spent helping fledgling events get established and ensuring the survival of nonprofit events such as the annual balloon festival, which does not charge admission.
In general, the county should not be concentrating on this or that event but on Warren County tourism in general. The bed tax money should not be used to pick winners and losers among local events but to help all the county’s businesses that rely on tourism by increasing the number of visitors.
Particular events should be promoted not in isolation but in the context of the many great things to do in Warren County — recreational and cultural.
Funding should be considered in the context of the overall visitor experience and benefit to the county as a whole. Small, local events, while important for individual communities, are unlikely to be a draw for overnight guests. Controlling invasive species in Lake George, by contrast, is critical to the tourism effort throughout the county.
Other efforts, such as improvements to the Civic Center or funding of institutions like the Hyde Collection Art Museum, could be considered important to marketing the county as a destination, even if few people stay overnight just to attend events there.
We’re not prepared to say exactly how the occupancy tax money should be spent. The point is, the county’s supervisors aren’t, either. This is too much money to be putting into the hands of amateurs in the field. For the county to get the most of its bed tax windfall, it should be turned over to tourism professionals for spending.