Being out in nature is a huge health boost and a tourist draw, but paying for needed infrastructure is a challenge

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 2/25/21

 

 

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Step away from the computer. Put down the phone. Go outside.

Sullivan County boasts acres of unspoiled land, miles of rivers and streams. But …

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Being out in nature is a huge health boost and a tourist draw, but paying for needed infrastructure is a challenge

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SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Step away from the computer. Put down the phone. Go outside.

Sullivan County boasts acres of unspoiled land, miles of rivers and streams. But parking can be limited or nonexistent, trailheads can be hard to find, the trails themselves might need clearing—and a restroom would be nice.

Making those improvements takes money, and legislator Alan Sorensen has a solution: Shift the allocation of room tax money to create a capital fund for tourism infrastructure.

The great outdoors

While the fund could apply to different kinds of tourism, Sorensen’s own focus is on nature and “public infrastructure improvements that enhance public access to natural resources.”

Last year clarified its importance. “I think we’re seeing the nature of tourism change, given the pandemic,” he said. People want to be outside. But also “it’s a generational shift. Millennials are more outdoorsy.” Their tourist history is based on collecting experiences more than stuff.

Dollar amounts needed to shore up nature-based tourism would depend on the projects, of course. Room tax receipts are divided between the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA), which receives 85 percent while the county reserves 15 percent for administration costs. 

Proposing a change has caused some distress.

“It’s not in any way a knock on the SCVA,” Sorensen said at last Thursday’s legislature meeting after public comment expressed concern. It’s that there’s far more money in the room tax pile than there was in the 1990s, and perhaps it’s time to shift some from marketing to tourist-focused infrastructure.

Here’s a sample project: the Neversink Unique Area, in Forestburgh and Thompson, which is made up of 6,580 acres of forests, trails and waterfalls. There’s a gorge. You can hunt, fish, or paddle. “They have wonderful hiking opportunities,” Sorensen said, “but parking [on Katrina Falls Road] is really limited, maybe two or three vehicles. We have a great resource, but it’s not convenient or accessible.” Other parking places are available, but visitors need to be aware of them. Cell service is also poor there.

Or consider that the county is crisscrossed with old train tracks, with canals. They’re “like linear parks,” Sorensen said, “with multiple access points.” The right infrastructure could make these spots more amenable to visitors.

Money out

But how to pay for it? Typically, with federal or state money, plus a local share. 

Sorensen is suggesting something different. Shifting the percentage allocation of room tax receipts from the visitors association to the county would create a capital fund. There’s enough money now to do both, he argued recently in an op-ed “Revisiting the formula,” published in River Reporter on February 11. “It gives us a recurrent funding stream.” 

It also means the funds are less vulnerable to political or economic shifts. A change of governing party, at the state or federal level, can mean a change of priorities, and parks tend to get cut when budget shortfalls loom. Even so, Sorensen, a Republican, sees nature tourism as a bipartisan good. “It benefits the entire community, makes the county more attractive and enhances the quality of life.” 

It doesn’t have to be staggering in scope. “Some projects would [have] a modest budget,” he said. 

The hope is that once you make the landscape accessible, they will come. “The beauty of using room tax,” he said, is that “as we enhance tourism infrastructure, we’ll be able to attract more people here.” Which means more room tax dollars.  

Money back

Economically, nature tourism has more of an impact than you might think. Granted, the point is to leave the land as untouched as possible, but visitors still need to stay somewhere, to eat and to buy supplies.

Here’s an idea of the potential: The Empire State Trail is 750 miles of new and newly connected older trails throughout New York State that draws 8.6 million users annually. It’s pandemic-friendly: Outdoor activities allow social distancing. 

Railstotrails.org says that the trail cost $266 million (mostly in state funds) and created 1,920 jobs. Just the Erie Canalway portion is projected to generate $210 million in annual revenue for its local communities, according to a 2014 Parks and Trails economic impact study.

“There are many opportunities to spur economic development,” Sorensen said. He mentions Morgan Outdoors in Livingston Manor, NY, where you can get all kinds of gear, maps, clothing and advice on your outdoor plans. 

Other counties are jumping on the nature-tourism bandwagon. In Ulster, the Town of Hurley has trails along the Esopus Creek and picnic grounds. “I have never gone by there without seeing people walking or running,” he said. 

Nature-based tourism isn’t just about the dollars.

“In a county such as Sullivan, where we rank 60 in health, the more we open recreational opportunities”—to both residents and visitors—the more that health ranking will improve.

Sorensen, a professional planner, added that companies looking to relocate here pay attention. “They’re looking at quality of life issues... all things being equal, one community has trails, one doesn’t,” they’ll choose the county with outdoor activities. Aflac surveyed 1,200 managers in 2020 and found that just over half had implemented wellness programs (many of those programs were online last year). 

Local benefit

And it’s about more than summers. Nature is always here. The forests don’t close, they just get covered in snow. “There are things that attract people here year-round to this variety of amenities,” he said. “There are endless possibilities. You just have to get motivated.” 

His final point was this: The benefits go beyond the economic, beyond money in locals’ pockets. Make nature accessible to visitors and to locals. Put down the screens. “We have such resources here. It’s our backyard.”

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