An Adirondack endangered species?
Hamilton County searches for solutions to save privately owned cabin-cottage resorts
For generations, they have been nestled along Adirondack lakeshores, next to roadsides, close to hiking, snowmobile and backcountry ski trails. At one point they were so ubiquitous that for many years their continued existence had been taken for granted. They were, and are, the privately held and often family operated cabin-cottage resorts and small motels that are the welcome mat to many visitors to the Adirondack Park.
In Hamilton County, beyond state and private camping facilities, these private resorts continue as the mainstay of accommodations for visitors. For many families, from generation to generation, visiting these pleasant and peaceful resorts continues to be a family ritual. Families escape together enjoying each other’s company surrounded by a unique and seemingly unchanging environment. These small resorts are the hallmark of the Adirondacks and are places where memories are made, where roots are set deep into this unique and beautiful region.
However, these small, family-owned and -operated resorts are noticeably fewer in number year upon year.
Jon Voorhees, proprietor of Camp Driftwood on the shore of Indian Lake, is very aware of this trend — so aware he felt a need to direct a communication concerning the trend to members of the Indian Lake town board and chamber of commerce. In his communication, Voorhees recognizes the many fine and successful festivals and events that have brought an increasing number of visitors and tourists to the area. Voorhees, however, goes on to mention several cabin-cottage resorts in the town of Indian Lake that have already been placed or are about to be placed on the market for sale this year. The facilities mentioned in Voorhees’s communication are on Indian Lake, Lake Abanakee and Blue Mountain Lake and in the hamlet of Sabael — all within the town of Indian Lake and, therefore, Hamilton County.
In his communication, Voorhees writes, “Together these [resorts] represent at least half of the resort accommodations here on Indian Lake.” The reasons Voorhees points to as cause for this loss are many: aging of ownership, poor health of proprietors and heirs not willing to take on the demands of the operations. Noticeably not included on the list is lack of business.
Voorhees, also makes the point that connected to the aging out of proprietors is a changing of expectations on the part of today’s visitors. This especially surrounds upgraded creature comforts, adequate broadband offering and full cellphone service-provider availability. These translate into continued and additional investment and demands for change on the part of an aging proprietor base.
Beyond these issues, Voorhees broadens the perspective to less owner-controllable issues, which he warns could result in a long-term negative impact on the growth of communities that are reliant on tourism. According to Voorhees, “It is hard to imagine that anyone will pay market value for these places and continue to operate them as part of our tourist industry. Indeed, since they are taxed at the value of their development potential as prized second home sites, [owners] are essentially being incentivized to go out of business. And, with a [resultant] grossly shrunken tourist base it’s terrible hard for me to imagine a viable future for the Town, its stores and restaurants, school and churches.”
Chris Golde’s family has operated the Lake Store and Smith Cabins in Sabael for multiple generations. The Lake Store opened in 1946, and its grocery and soda fountain have been servicing campers at the Indian Lake Islands and other small cottage resorts since that time, but his family has decided to close both the store and Smith Cabins at the end of this past season.
“I am so conflicted over this decision,” Golde admits. He talks about growing up with the cabins and the store central to his childhood, but explains that his mother is 94 and in a nursing home. His son spent this entire season redirecting the store’s inventory to reflect the work of local artisans and the desires and needs of today’s tourists. It was a step in the right direction, and customer numbers grew this season, but the family has decided not to continue operating the business for various personal reasons.
Lenny Baglieri, proprietor of Blue Mountain Rest in the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake, recognizes the requisites for success in operating a privately owned small resort accommodation. Over more than a decade of ownership, Baglieri continues to meet changing and growing customer expectation through continuous investment in upgrades to his resort.
Baglieri also makes a point that to grow a small private resort business, you have to apply “marketing and hospitality smarts.” Baglieri says, “I don’t sell my rooms. I sell the area. I build packages for clients by networking with other businesses in the area.”
This network packaging approach is something in which he places a great deal of credit on for his success. He believes his efforts have only scratched the surface. He sees great potential for businesses to work together to further the regional visitation level, help reinforce positive customer experiences and make everyone’s business the better for the cooperation.
He also recognizes there are factors beyond his direct control that need to be added into the perspective of anyone looking to stem the loss of these resort assets. Baglieri points to the need for municipalities to change their attitudes and “rethink ordinances to make it easier for business to get started and to expand. If you want to bring tourism business into a community like ours, beds are important.”
William Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, points out that a process was begun some years ago with the Regional Organization of Sustainable Tourism and the North Country Regional Economic Development Council to develop “Destination Workbooks,” community by community. Farber explains that part of the process involved analyzing each areas “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats,” which were summarized with the acronym SWOT.
“Consistently the threat/weakness which surfaced was the threat to our lodging properties and the overall shortage of lodging stock,” Farber emphasized.
He contends that he has been talking with ROOST and others about “how we would convene a local task force to look at all these issues.” He explains, “[The task force] would seek to put together solutions in a holistic way. We are finding that there are no single silver bullet solutions, nor single barrier, and so it will take a multi-faceted solution to turn some of these trends around.”
Farber also believes the focus has to reach beyond the county and involve both the local and state levels to be able to address all the facets of the problem effectively.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco added, “I believe a holistic approach is needed that brings together our small businesses with local, county and state government along with our chambers of commerce. … We hope that with the passage of the Land Bank Proposition 3 on Election Day, this will provide some relief to help our municipalities and businesses in the Adirondacks, including the lodging industry, by enabling them to make some much-needed investments in infrastructure such as broadband.”
Indian Lake town Supervisor Brian Wells agrees with Tedisco but emphasizes that though broadband internet is important, “Based on what I hear from visitors, even more important is th e level of cell service.” Wells points to the fact that he has offered AT&T the possibility of putting its equipment on top of the town’s water towers. This would give the town both Verizon and AT&T services available to visitors.
“AT&T agreed it was a good idea, but now I can’t get anyone there to return my calls,” Wells says.
Brenda Valentine, president of the Indian Lake Community Development Corporation, is proactive at the local level.
“Successful tourism is dependent upon available, clean lodgings that offer modern amenities,” she said. “The ILCDC is knowledgeable of several financial resources, including grants and loans that are available to businesses in general and accommodation owners in particular. We are reviewing our list of financial resources and preparing to share this information with interested business owners.”
Bill Murphy, president of the Indian Lake Chamber of Commerce, recognizes that the problem needs to be approached on many levels and that each accommodation will have its own mix of challenges and opportunities. He intends to organize a hospitality focus group or workshop for chamber members between January and March of 2018 to help identify and address needs and solutions.
Perhaps it is apropos to circle back to Jon Voorhees, the proprietor of Camp Driftwood. He will be the first to admit that the loss of small, private lodging is not new, but he is quick to point out that in his experienced opinion, what is new about the problem is the rapidity with which the loss of these accommodations is accelerating.
He is also quick to mention the attention and, in some cases, funding and tax incentives that are invested to attract new business to the state. He says he is not bitter about these efforts but offers this advice: “Don’t let something good, that you already have, go on to die.”