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OUTLOOK: Lake George continues quest for year-round economy

From the Outlook 2018 series

LAKE GEORGE — It could be said that Lake George is in an adolescent phase of its economic development.

There has been more activity in the winter, but efforts to make Lake George a more year-round destination have not yet fully borne fruit.

Village Mayor Robert Blais said the number of businesses that are staying open this winter has doubled from last year to about 15.

“There are noticeably more people on our streets,” he said.

Among the businesses that have stayed open are the Lake George Beach Club, Lake George Distilling Company, Giuseppe’s Pizzeria & Restaurant and Molly Malone’s Irish Gifts, according to Blais.

“All are reporting is that they’re doing well,” he said.

Catch up the local business economy in this year's edition of Outlook. 

Blais attributed the increase in activity to events such as conferences and wedding receptions taking place at Courtyard by Marriott, which opened in August 2016 and added banquet facilities last summer.

In addition, Caffé Vero is relocating its business to a more prominent location at 253 Canada St. — the former home of Gino & Tony’s Italian Eatery. Michael Congel bought the two-story building in November from the Fredvalle Restaurant Corp. for $1.345 million, according to Warren County deeds.

“The Marriott was a huge step forward and Caffé Vero is another giant step forward,” Blais said.

The village has upgraded its sidewalks over the last few years to make them more accessible for people who are living in the area or renting rooms at local hotels, Blais said.

Lake George Distilling Co. owner John McDougall said he also has noticed more activity because of the Marriott and he looked forward to the Lake George Winter Carnival boosting business. His business is open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“We tried to do it seven days a week last year. It was a little tough,” he said.

More storefronts need to be open, McDougall said.

“If you drive through there now, there’s only a few of us,” he said.

It hurts Lake George that not many restaurants and shops are open, according to Kevin Markham, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott on Canada Street.

“Where we’re having the biggest trouble is finding things for them to do,” he said.

Markham said he believes the county needs to develop more large events such as Americade, Adirondack Balloon Festival and the Lake George Winter Carnival, which he said is a great asset.

“The second two weekends (of the Winter Carnival), we are completely sold out,” he said.

Markham said he wants a more year-round economy to help out his employees. In the summer months, the hospitality industry employs about 9,000 people locally. Once October and November hits, that number drops to about 6,000.

“What are those other 3,000 people doing in our community? That’s a strain on your social services?” he said.

Tourism is Warren County’s No. 2 industry, according to Markham. If more people come to the area, that would increase sales taxes and occupancy tax and lower property taxes, he said.

Markham said Lake George should mirror what other communities are doing to promote tourism, pointing to Lake Placid, which has a thriving year-round economy.

“The only difference between Lake Placid and Lake George is the Olympic arenas,” Markham said.

Markham supports the idea of spinning off a Convention and Visitors Bureau from the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce to focus solely on attracting events and conferences to the area. Lake Placid has its Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, which is a nonprofit group that focuses on marketing efforts for Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties.

Markham said another reason why tourism promotion should be in the hands of the private sector is it offers more of an incentive to do well, or it is replaced. If tourism promotion is done by the county, the staff is retained regardless of whether tourism is up or down.

John Carr, owner of the Adirondack Pub & Brewery, is also among a group lobbying Warren County to outsource tourism promotion.

“We’re the only county in the state that is doing tourism promotion by a government agency,” he said.

Carr questioned the effectiveness of the $4.3 million the county annually spends on tourism. Occupancy tax receipts grew by 1.8 percent last year. However, Carr and others believe that figure is more than offset by inflation and the increase in room rates.

The Lake George region has plenty to offer, according to Carr.

“We already have enough great reasons to come to Lake George. We have ice festivals, cross-cross country skiing, snowshoeing, hotels, indoor water park,” he said.

“We have a lot of things to do, yet the streets are empty,” he added.

Carr is also skeptical about the need for any convention or conference center space. He said there is already the Lake George Forum, which sits largely idle.

Carr asked why anybody would want to come to Lake George for a convention in November through March when they could go to Myrtle Beach, San Diego, Austin or Nashville.

The Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce has been trying to promote a “Lake George 365” agenda.

Executive Director Gina Mintzer said chamber officials went to Crossgates mall in Guilderland for a week around Christmas to talk to people and promote Lake George. People told them: “We didn’t know everything was open.”

It is important to think regionally, according to Mintzer.

“We don’t look at Glens Falls as isolated from Lake George village,” she said.

Another issue keeping businesses from opening year-round is labor, according to Mintzer. Last fall, she said several chamber members extended the visas for their seasonal staff, including the Boathouse Restaurant and the Lodges at Crest Haven.

“They have continued to increase their business each year for the last three years as they’ve stayed open longer,” Mintzer said. “But it comes down to having the workforce.”

There is potential for further economic development in Lake George.

Blais believes the village needs another retail draw. He said he is working to attract a specialty retail chain that would be open year-round, though he would not identify the business.

If he could land that business, and an idea to redevelop the current House of Frankenstein seasonal tourist shops at the corner of McGillis Avenue and Canada Street comes to fruition, Lake George would see even more activity, Blais said. That property is included in the town and village’s recently adopted economic development plan, which identifies about 20 properties that are either vacant or underutilized, or whose current owner would like to sell. This includes the old Ramada Inn off Northway Exit 21, the old McDonald’s restaurant at 105 Canada St., Water Slide World and the Travelodge hotel behind Gooney Golf on Route 9.

Other properties are also in play. Duffy’s Tavern and the adjacent deli and convenience store and the Bank Café property are for sale, either as a package or separately. The lot sits on a prime corner, across from the Courtyard by Marriott, and somebody could develop a hotel or other new development at the site.

Dan Barusch, director of planning and zoning for the town, said new industry is needed to make Lake George a year-round economy. This could include light manufacturing or office work that could sustain year-round employment, especially for younger people.

“A lot of people are moving out of small towns like this,” he said.

Barusch said the zoning code is very flexible to allow for a lot of different businesses and industries.

However, tourism will continue to be Lake George’s bread and butter. Carr said he is skeptical about efforts to attract private industry. Most of the town is in the Adirondack Park, which carries more regulatory hurdles.

“For businesses, they’re going to take the path of least resistance. If they can open up in Clifton Park or Malta, they’re going to do that,” he said.

Blais said he does not think Lake George will ever be as busy as communities like Saratoga Springs. Many Lake George businesses are owned by people who do not live locally, and they are not heating them in the winter, he said. Blais said it is going to be difficult to attract those absentee owners to relocate here in the winter and open their business until they see more activity.

However, he said he believes there can be more activity year-round.

“Slowly, we will get there,” he said.

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