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Franklin County reactivates tourism promotion contract

Was suspended in April due to COVID-19 and expected finance crunch

MALONE — Franklin County’s tourism promotion contract with the Local Development Corp., which was suspended in April as county officials prepared for anticipated multi-million-dollar revenue losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been reinstated.

The reversal comes as tourism numbers have rebounded — even at a time of year when visits to the area typically slow down, said Kelly Brunette, who handles the LDC’s promotion efforts primarily for the southern portion of the county.

Visitors see the area, which has had few cases of the COVID-19 virus compared to many other areas of the state, as “safe and comfortable and a nice respite,” Brunette said.

Brunette and Phil Hans, her colleague for the northern portion of the county, met with the county Legislature on Thursday to outline plans to ramp up the county’s marketing efforts that are designed to continue to draw visitors to the region now that the state has largely reopened. Although they declined to provide details until the plans have been reviewed and approved by the county’s Tourism Advisory Committee, they said the efforts will continue to focus on the “family-friendly” atmosphere the county provides.

County Industrial Development Agency CEO Jeremy Evans said any marketing will keep issues of health and safety at the forefront. The activities and events that would be promoted under the plan will take place “within the realities of the public health crisis we are in,” he said.

The LDC is the financing arm of the IDA; the two agencies share staff and directors.

The plan will also try together multiple possible destinations for tourists to entice them to stay longer and to visit several locations that may not have been on their original travel itineraries, Brunette said.

There is “a real strong desire for more of a cooperative marketing initiative,” she said.

One example might be a promotion that focuses on the waterfalls scattered throughout the county, Hans said. Such an effort would could draw people to more out-of-the-way locations they might not have previously thought of visiting, bringing tourists — and their dollars — to overlooked communities and giving people a reason to stay in the area longer, he said.

Hans also noted that the county will have to adjust its marketing strategy because visitors have changed the way they make their travel plans. In the past, plans for a weekend visit to the area might be made weeks or even months in advance; now they are often made just a few days ahead of time as people wait to see what the current conditions are before committing to a visit, he said.

The uptick in visitors has also spawned an uptick in the number of people looking to become permanent or semipermanent residents of the area, Hans said. The demand for houses as permanent or seasonal residences has boomed to the point that there is “almost a shortage of properties for sale,” Hans said.

“It has become clear there are a lot of folks who recognize what a wonderful place we live in,” Evans said.

That is particularly true of waterfront properties, even though many of them lack the internet and cell phone service many people consider vital to modern life, Legislator Andrea Dumas, R-Malone, said. Expanding those services to currently underserved communities could fuel even more interest in relocating to the area, she said.

Legislators offered several suggestions for areas to be highlighted in the final marketing campaign, ranging from food trails to all-terrain vehicle trails. Legislators Paul Lauzon, D-Fort Covington, also suggested working with neighboring counties to create an even large draw for visitors.

Hans said now that tourism promotion is back on track, “there’s a lot of work to do — but it’s really exciting stuff.

The county’s tourism promotion efforts are paid for through its occupancy tax — a 5% levy on short-term rental charges. The original contract between the county and the LDC had projected at least $473,000 being spent for tourism promotion, but the revived agreement is being worked out to take into account the revenues lost because of the pandemic — and the suspension of an active marketing campaign for the summer.

A revised agreement has not yet been finalized, but Evans said he expects the county to pay the LDC around $200,000 for the interrupted effort.

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