JOHNSTOWN – The Fulton County Board of Supervisors is poised to vote at next Tuesday’s meeting on a resolution to end its tourism promotion contract with the regional chamber of commerce and establish a new county tourism bureau, and Mark Kilmer is urging county residents to call their supervisors to tell them to vote against it.
Kilmer, president of the Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the county’s plan to end its annual $178,373 contract with the chamber in order to promote tourism would effectively “gut” the chamber’s current staffing and programming efforts, resulting in a 20 to 25% cut in the chamber’s annual operating budget of about $500,000. He said he’s going to attend the board meeting to give a speech during public comment in the hope he can rally support for the chamber.
“We’ve been urging people with a post on Fulton County Area News [Facebook page] to contact their supervisor, and we also put that out in an email blast today — that’s how you do things,” Kilmer said. “You’ve got to tell people to call with their preference.”
Greg Fagan, Perth town supervisor and chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he believes it’s the clear preference of the supervisors to change the county’s approach to promoting tourism.
“At this point, this [resolution] has been through two [board] committees already, with only supervisor voting against it — [Gloversville 2nd Ward Supervisor] Frank Lauria,” Fagan said.
Fagan said the Board has discussed the possibility of ending the county’s annual contract with the chamber in past years, but the county’s “Destination: Fulton County” strategic plan for how to spend the $10.4 million American Rescue Plan Act grant, first unveiled in August 2021, was the catalyst for taking action to create a county-operated tourism bureau.
“I think the folks who were involved when the two county chambers merged a long time ago knew this day was going to come at some point,” Fagan said. “There’s been annual discussions about whether to stay with the chamber or move in a different direction. It became extremely serious last summer as we started our budget review, and in our oversight committees multiple supervisors wanted to look at doing something different. We looked at three things:
1. Staying with the chamber
2. Contracting with the [Fulton County Center for Regional Growth], which did an RFP for that
Or 3. Bringing it in-house, and that worked its way through [the board’s committee process] this year [and the decision] ended up being bring it in-house. Most of us feel this is a really good time to do this with all of our Destination: Fulton County plans.”
The Destination: Fulton County strategic plan includes the creation and promotion of the “Great Sacandaga Lake History Museum,” to be built on approximately 37 acres in the town of Northampton purchased in 2021 for $520,000 from the ARPA grant. Promotion of the museum, once built, was cited as among the tasks the new tourism bureau would focus on during a presentation about the creation of the tourism bureau by Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead at the Board’s Sept. 12 meeting. The county still has about $600,000 in ARPA money earmarked for the museum and is applying for a $1 million grant from New York state’s annual Consolidated Funding Application process to help fund the construction.
During the Sept. 12 meeting Stead said creating a county-run “Visitors Bureau Division” would include an annual budget of approximately $253,837, paid for chiefly from the county’s “bed tax” on hotel rooms, which raised $275,327 in tax revenue for 2021. The new division would operate as part of the Fulton County Planning Department under county Planner Scott Henz.
After Stead’s presentation, Johnstown Supervisor Jack Wilson made a motion for a resolution to support the county continuing with a process to create the new tourism division, which received unanimous support from board members, but the decision won’t be complete until the vote on next week.
Fagan explained why he thinks there is broad support on the Board to make the change.
“When you take something that was exclusively Fulton County’s and from Montgomery County’s perspective exclusively Montgomery County’s and cut it in half, at some point you’re going to get to the point where one side feels like they’re not getting everything they should have,” Fagan said. “I think this [dissatisfaction] has built over time.”
Kilmer said if members of the Board of Supervisors have been dissatisfied with how tourism is being promoted they’ve not told him about it. He said tourism dollars spent in Fulton County have grown from $50.5 million in 2014 to $72.4 million in 2021. He said if Fulton County ends its tourism contract with the chamber he doesn’t know if it will be feasible for the chamber to continue to provide the service only for Montgomery County, which currently contributes $120,000 annually to the chamber for tourism — about $70,000 of that funding only provided as state-funded reimbursement for specific chamber activities and the rest contributed directly to the chamber’s operating budget.
Kilmer said what could be lost with Fulton County taking over tourism promotion is the individual and apolitical nature of the attention the chamber gives to all businesses, not just the 800 businesses that make up the chamber, of which he says probably 25% are small businesses that directly benefit from tourism.
“Most of the tourism businesses here, in both Fulton and Montgomery counties, are small businesses,” Kilmer said. “We don’t have a casino. We don’t have a waterslide world, and we don’t have a Great Escape, those types of things. We have the ‘mom and pops’, we have the people who own the pick-your-own blueberry farms, the people who produce maple syrup, and the craft brewing businesses, all small, and those are the people who need the hands-on attention the chamber gives, and I don’t believe the county can replicate that.”
Fagan said he’s hopeful the chamber’s current tourism director Anne Boles will be hired as Fulton County’s tourism coordinator under the new visitors bureau, a position that will have a salary of $62,000 and “fringe” benefits costing $29,750 for a combined cost of $91,760.
“We’ve been extremely happy with Anne Boles and the job she does,” Fagan said. “That makes us think that, if we had that person 100% of the time, we could probably do twice what we’re doing with a good person half of the time.”
Fagan said he believes even if the Board ends the tourism contract with the chamber the county will continue supporting the chamber’s role in operating the www.44lakes.com/blog, which helps promote tourism.
“We want to support them financially,” Fagan said. “We will have a contract with them.”