Old Forge, N.Y., like many of the 100-plus towns located within Adirondack Park, is largely dependent on tourism to survive. This year, an already shortened summer season is in jeopardy due to the coronavirus and the restrictions on travel and commerce. Many whose livelihoods rely on tourism are concerned that if the state doesn’t reopen fast enough, it will be too late to save jobs and businesses.
Encompassing more than 6 million acres and playing host to 7 million visitors a year, the Adirondack Park is the largest protected natural area in the contiguous United States, covering a third of New York’s total land area. The wilderness preserve was established by the state Legislature in 1892 when concerns arose over the devastating effects of clear-cut logging. Today the park is a mixture of public and private lands under nine different categories of protection.
Vacations were invented here in the late 1800s when the region became a popular destination for city dwellers. An expanding railroad system and new sense of prosperity coincided with a desire to leave dirty, crowded cities and seek the healthful benefits of mountain air. Wealthy New Yorkers were said to vacate their urban dwellings for summer homes up north, and the new term “vacation” took hold.
Old Forge can be an inhospitable place in the winter, holding the state record for low temperature, -52F, set in 1979. But with nearly 500 miles of trails, the town has built up a winter sports infrastructure that gives them a second season, hosting tens of thousands of snowmobilers. Even so, it’s the warmer months that bring the bulk of visitors that support the area’s tourism economy. Now that the state is slowly reopening, some area businesses are able to adjust in the era of masks and social distancing, and some are not. Some never will. Governing spoke to more than a dozen businesspeople in and around Old Forge. Here are their stories.
Tourism Director, Town of Webb
Covering nearly 500 square miles, the town of Webb is the largest township in New York and one of the state’s least populated. Hunters and fishermen have been coming to this part of the Adirondacks since the 1800s. As the logging industry faded in the 20th century, tourism took its place as the main driver of economic activity in the region, leaving Webb dependent on a healthy tourism industry. From his modest office in the hamlet of Old Forge, Tourism Director Mike Farmer is trying to protect community businesses, residents and visitors in the age of coronavirus.
A decade in the Marines and many more years as a ski instructor to the high and mighty in Aspen have left the fit and folksy Farmer affably organized and up to the task at hand. “Our No. 1 focus is the safety of the people here and the people who are coming. We want to tell those families we’re doing everything we can to help you be safe,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for over 170 years, this social distancing and stuff. If you want social distancing, get in a boat and get out in the middle of a lake.”
Payne’s Air Service
Jim Payne has been flying for 63 years. Since he started Payne’s Air Service almost 50 years ago, the 83-year-old seaplane pilot has been shuttling fishermen to remote areas of the Adirondacks as soon as the ice melts, until it freezes again in late November. His peak season coincides with the arrival of fall foliage in the waning days of September when as many as 15 flights a day leave from the Payne’s dock on Seventh Lake. “In the summer it’s more scenic flying,” says Jim. “We’re taking families, two or three people or couples.”
Since COVID-19, the Payne fleet is tied to the dock or remains in storage. “It’s put me right out of business,” Jim says. “I lost my whole spring fishing season. Everything is just dead in the water. We lost it all.” The gradual reopening of businesses will not help Jim anytime soon. “In our business we put four or five people right in the airplane, shoulder to shoulder. How do we do that?” It isn’t just the customers Payne has to worry about. “My family doesn’t want me to do it because of my age,” he says. “Because I’m pretty susceptible.”
Featuring a collection of story book houses and structures based on nursery rhymes, legends and fairytales, the Enchanted Forest of the Adirondacks opened in 1956. Kelly Greene was lucky enough to be eight years old when her family bought the attraction in 1977. She grew up in the park as it expanded over the years, adding dozens of water slides, a hotel and campground. Kelly and her sister Katie now own the renamed Enchanted Forest Water Safari.
“In the winter I would say 60 people work year-round between the three properties.” says Kelly. “In the summer we have over 400 employees.” Almost a quarter of those are international students. “They are in touch with us, but they don’t know what’s happening either,” she says. “We’re moving forward as if they’re not coming,” Kelly is frustrated by the lack of communication from the governor. “You can’t give us the guidance the day before and expect us to open our doors to a place like this the next day,” she says. “It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.” As difficult as it is to ramp up an operation this big, shutting it down is harder. “It takes three months to close down the water slides,” says Kelly. “It takes longer to close than it does to open.”
Country Club Motel
Owner Keith Wiggand is standing by the reception window of the 1950s-era Country Club Motel, under an eave and out of the rain. His face is illuminated by a red neon “Vacancy” sign. “We bring enough in April normally to pay the bills,” he says. “This April we brought in 92 dollars and 50 cents.” The month of May wasn’t much better, down 70 percent from a year ago. On this dreary night, only one of his 27 rooms are occupied.
“The COVID thing has cost us a lot of money,” Wiggand says. “A lot of stress, sitting here with an empty hotel. Normally by now we have virtually everything rented for the whole summer. Right now, we have two people.” Wiggand had been thinking about expanding his holdings in town. “I can buy another motel cheaper than putting an addition on this place,” he says. “But I’m kind of putting that on hold for the moment because of this COVID thing.” It’s not the coronavirus that is holding him back. “I am afraid of the kinds of regulations that the state of New York is going to come up with after this is all done,” he says. “And that scares the pants off me.”
Artisans on Main
Barbara Green is alone in her shop, Artisans on Main, a communal space recently shared by a number of artists and crafters. Her specialty is weaving Adirondack pack baskets. A pile of them takes up a corner of the large room. “We had not one shred of ‘made in China,’” she says. “Everything was handmade and locally sourced, and people were really enjoying that.” Green’s focus eventually turned from selling, to teaching classes. “What people are looking for up here now is the experience. So, we were all excited about that! And it was working.” Forced to cancel scheduled workshops in early March, income evaporated. “The workshops were what would have carried us,” she says. Green and her business partner, a fellow crafter, decided their only option was to close. “We both kept saying ‘let's just wait. Let's just wait and see,’” she says. “The wait-and-see was not working for me anymore.”
Green is currently serving her fourth non-consecutive term on the town council. “I keep coming back like a bad penny,” she says. “I'm trying to help do the right thing to get businesses up and going and meanwhile mine is going down the tubes. So, it's kind of frustrating in that regard.”
Michael Przybyla got his first summer job as a dockhand at Rivett’s Marine in Old Forge. That’s where he met his wife Suzanne, also a summer employee. Today, they own the place. “I loved it and never wanted to leave,” Michael says. A century ago, canoe rentals were the main source of income for Rivett’s. With a current fleet of 25 pontoon boats and six ski boats, rentals still keep the business afloat. “Sales and service, storage, dockage and the store. That's all great. But that doesn't keep us going,” he says.
The marina would normally open at the end of April when boats are brought out of storage and the docks reassembled. But this year was different. “It wasn't looking like we were going to be able to rent boats at all,” says Michael. But once marinas were deemed essential, things started looking up. “I'm feeling like [the season] will actually be a busier one.” With schools closing earlier than usual, cooped up families may start vacations sooner. Even so, the vagaries of Adirondack weather are always a problem for a business that makes 80 percent of its annual revenue in July and August. “Sunny. Everything goes out,” Michael says. “Bad weather, rain. They all sit here. It's incredible, such a swing in revenue.”
The Souvenir Village has been a family business in Old Forge for nearly 50 years. Chip Keifer and his wife are the latest to run the place. Their store is open every day in the summer and weekends the rest of the year when he subs at school for extra income. “It’s a really hard place to make a living,” he says. “Yet it’s a great place to live.” Today the inside of Souvenir Village is crowded with boxes of merchandise stacked everywhere, the result of conducting business outside the previous weekend. With customers barred from entering, the town recently relaxed rules about selling on the sidewalks to give merchants a chance to make some money.
“My wife and I thought we were going to have a terrible summer, so we cancelled a lot of the orders we had already placed,” Chip says. Surprisingly, the weekend’s curb-side sales did much better than expected. “All of our friends with businesses around us all said the same thing,” he says. “We’re all of a sudden extremely optimistic about the summer.” Kiefer is rethinking his decision to cancel orders. “If you own a business, you have to be eternally optimistic. Ridiculously optimistic.”
Van Auken’s Inne
Looking to relocate from Kentucky, Jim Moore stopped for lunch at Van Auken’s Inne five years ago, liked what he saw, and ended up buying the place. Built in 1891, the imposing white wooden structure is situated beside an old train station, now home to the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. With a varied background as bar owner, coal miner and touring musician, Moore has done a lot to breathe new life into an old institution. “We’ve been very successful,” he says. But it hasn’t been easy. “Here, the economy starts, it runs 110 days and it completely quits. After 90 days it starts back up and it runs for another 110. It’s hard to sustain some sort of economic continuity through all that.”
For the time being, Van Auken’s restaurant and rooms are empty. While a number of local businesses were heartened by the surge of visitors over the recent Memorial Day weekend, Moore took a wait-and-see attitude. “I didn’t open. I had no clarity if I could or if I should. There is no testing. Where is it? Who has it? They don’t have a clue,” he says. “The COVID thing is a dangerous thing to be playing that game with.”
Fulton Chain Craft Brewery
Justin Staskiewicz and Rich Mather
Crowbars in hand and masks on their faces, Justin Staskiewicz and Rich Mather are ripping up the floor of the Fulton Chain Craft Brewery. The two friends opened their business five years ago in what was once a bowling alley. Initially able to produce 62 gallons at a time using two barrels, they soon grew to seven barrels and now they are making room for 14 more. Business this spring is slow but steady. “We’re being really careful with our spending which is tough in the middle of expansion,” say Justin. “But we did have to cut down some of our staff due to this.” Curbside sales and home deliveries are providing at least some income for the time being.
“Summer is definitely the bulk of our season,” says Justin. “It's like go, go, go, just trying to keep up. Fall is really good and then winter is the second busiest.” For these brewers, the coronavirus seems to have come at a time when it could do the least damage to their business. “We were prepared for an offseason anyway,” Justin says. “Because the end of March, April and the beginning of May are always slow up here. The fact that COVID found this time, it's never a good time. But it was okay. We were financially prepared for it.”
Helen Zyma and Bob Card
“HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY MADDIE” fills the marquee in front of the Strand Theater on Main St. With no summer blockbusters to show, the nearly century-old movie house is dark. “Business is terrible,” says Helen Zyma, who, along with partner Bob Card, purchased the place in 1991. They immediately set about returning the place to its former glory. The lobby was refurbished and the nearly 400 1930s-era seats were shipped off to be reupholstered. “It was actually more expensive to have them redone than to buy new ones,” says Helen. “But we like the art deco. The end panels are just so beautiful.” An expansion in 2000 added three more screens. “We look forward to reopening, but it’s not going to be the same,” says Helen. "The idea of sitting and watching a movie for two hours with a mask on…”
Whatever happens, Helen and Bob won’t be going anywhere. They live upstairs. The theater is their home, something they often take advantage of by screening movies for themselves. “Sometimes for breakfast, sometimes late at night,” Helen says. Last year, after being together for 31 years, they got married in the lobby. “It was very simple,” she says. “Right in front of the popcorn machine.”
Frisky Otter Tours
Connie Perry sells and rents canoes and kayaks from a secluded spot on the shores of Fourth Lake. She started Frisky Otter Tours in 2007 after years working for someone else. “I just decided it was time to do my own thing,” she says. If all goes well, she will have help in the summer. But for now, it’s a one-woman operation. Thanks to persistent spring snows and the pandemic, her season is off to a slow start. “Normally we have a demo here in mid-May,” she says. “And we’re definitely way behind.”
With new protocols in place for curb-side pickup and rentals, she is adamant that everyone abides by the new rules of doing business. “All it takes is one to make or break it for everybody,” she says. “If something does happen here, if there’s an outbreak, it could shut everybody down for the season. Because we are a tourist destination, that would be devastating financially for most businesses and they may not come back.” To Perry’s mind, there is an even greater cause for concern. “We don’t have a lot of health care here and we also have an older population and so we have to protect our customers and our community.”
Since he moved here 31 years ago, Steven Hoepfl has owned and operated Christy’s Motel in Old Forge. Neon signs are no longer allowed here, but his '50s-era example by the road is grandfathered in. As Hoepfl sees it, the pandemic could not have come at a more opportune time. “COVID started mid-March when we were out of snow, so we had no business. April is dead. It’s mud season. The beginning of May there’s usually not much going on,” he says. “For me, it’s really not had much of an impact.” Until now.
As June drew near, the cancellation of events in the area was beginning to take a toll. “This past weekend I was down 50 percent,” Hoepfl says. “I had a group coming down from Canada. They can’t leave Canada.” An annual paddle boat event that attracts thousands was scuttled. “Right now, because it’s so slow, I’m just leaving rooms sit for two or three days before we even go in them.” Hoepfl has no doubt that the virus is real. “I walk into these rooms, pull the blankets off, pull the sheets off that these people just coughed and sneezed on, pick up their towels,” he says. “I would be shocked if I didn’t have it.”
Patrick Russell, Herkimer County legislator
Patrick Russell is pacing back and forth in front of his store on Main St., on a conference call with someone from the county. “I just want to bring it to your attention,” he says into the phone. Mostly he just listens. Russell has two jobs. He is the owner of The Naked Moose gift shop and majority leader of the Herkimer County legislature. His fellow business owners had expected the governor to announce a new phase in the state’s reopening today, but it didn’t happen. “We’ve been getting phone call after phone call,” he says. “What’s going on? And we can’t answer the question because the governor won’t give us any answers. It’s been very difficult to try to figure out what the heck’s going on.”
Russell has already lost thousands of dollars because of the shutdown. “You’ll see people open today,” he says. “But because I’m a county legislator and they haven’t given us the official notice by the governor for retail to open, I can’t open.” A masked man out for a walk with his dog pauses in front of The Naked Moose. Gesturing toward Russell, he says “If he opens his store today, some county legislator is going to come along and arrest him. And report him to Cuomo.”
Charlie and Nancy Frey
A century ago, there were several grand hotels in the little town of Inlet. Today, the Woods Inn on Fourth Lake is the sole survivor. Opened in 1894 and expanded over the following decades, the old building eventually closed in 1989 and its contents auctioned. Narrowly avoiding demolition and redevelopment, the Woods Inn was rescued and restored in 2003. Eleven years later Charlie Frey wandered in for a look. “I came inside and was like ‘oh my gosh,’” he says. “I looked at the tin ceilings, I looked at the rooms. Wow, this is historic.” A year later, he and his wife Nancy owned it.
Frey is six years into a 10-year commitment to keep the business going. “These places are too much for an individual, couple or even a family to take on,” he says. “It’s a 24/7 responsibility.” And now the coronavirus is making a difficult situation that much harder. “You’re a seasonal property with limited resources, but now you have to do the same thing as the large corporate Marriott is going to do, or Comfort Inn. And you have limited staff.” Still, Frey is optimistic about the historic hotel’s future. “We have to be cup-half-full. What other choice do we have?”