Tourism: Adirondacks, Catskills open for business

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The message at the top of The Mountaineer's website says it all.

"ATTENTION!! Route 73 Is OPEN!"

The exclamation points are understandable. The well-known Adirondack outfitter in the hamlet of Keene Valley saw its business drop to nearly zilch after torrential rains from the aftermath of Hurricane Irene gouged out gaps in sections of Route 73, which runs past the store's front door. If that wasn't bad enough, remnants of Tropical Storm Lee brought more rain and more woes to the North Country, a region heavily dependent on a tourism industry still trying to rebound from the recession.

"It kicked us pretty hard," Mountaineer owner Vinny McClelland said of the 1-2 punch delivered by the storms within a two-week span.

Damage from Irene in late August closed scores of roads in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park and the Catskill Mountains south of Albany. Most have since reopened, although some closures remain in effect in the Catskills region.

In the Adirondacks, the most significant closures included such main thoroughfares as Routes 9N and Route 73, the major road to the Lake Placid-Saranac Lake region for visitors coming up from the south, including the densely populated New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metro area. State transportation officials initially didn't think Route 73 would be fully open until mid-September, but the road was reopened ahead of time Monday with much fanfare, including a visit from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

"The road is open. Come visit us," Cuomo said. "Foliage season is about to begin. This is one of the most special places in the country, period."

The timing of the storms couldn't have been worse for McClelland and his fellow North Country business owners. The brunt of Irene struck the region on Aug. 28, the Sunday before the unofficial last week of the summer, traditionally one of the biggest weeks for Adirondack tourism. The storm damage forced the closure of many popular hiking trails, washed out foot bridges and dams and essentially cut off some mountain areas just before the normally busy Labor Day weekend, while Lee's arrival delivered another blow in the run-up to the fall foliage season that begins later this month.

"That's our springboard into the winter, usually," said McClelland, 60, who built his mountaineering and outdoor equipment business with his father in 1975.

"We're hopeful and optimistic that there will be no effect on the upcoming foliage season," said Kimberly Rielly, spokeswoman for the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau. While roads, homes and some businesses sustained damage, the majority of the Adirondacks' tourism infrastructure — lodging, attractions, restaurants — were mostly untouched by the storms, she said.

But news of the damage from Irene and the resulting road closures gave the impression that some areas were inaccessible. Business owners say the main effort now is getting the word out that the Adirondacks and the Catskills are open and their scenic byways are safe to travel.

"The communities have the welcome mat out," McClelland said.

Anthony Dawson Ellis, owner of The Haus, a vacation rental property in Lake Placid, said he had guests cancel reservations because of Irene, while others either left early or had to extend their stays because of the weather. A few guests from Manhattan managed to just outrun the storm to the Adirondacks.

"They literally fled with the storm right on their heels," he said.

Fall event organizers need to let the public know that the show goes on in the Adirondacks, no matter what Mother Nature delivers, Ellis said.

"I think everybody needs to reaffirm that these things are happening, either in the blogs or out in the media in general," he said. "We're mountain people up here. We're used to dramatic weather. We get through this stuff."

In the Catskills, western areas of Greene County such as Prattsville and Windham sustained some of the worst flooding damage caused by Irene. The region gets much of its tourism trade from the New York City metropolitan area, where this month the Ulster County tourism office is running radio ads informing people that conditions have improved greatly since Irene passed through.

"We are letting them now that we are definitely open and please come," said county tourism director Richard Remsnyder.

To the north in Greene County, the Blackthorne Resort in East Durham is still hosting its annual Catskill Mountain Thunder motorcycle rally, despite last week's flooding that deposited gold fish from a pond into the bar located in the main building, which burned down in the middle of last year's event. The September 2010 rally was disrupted but carried on, and a new building eventually was constructed.

Dale Handel, co-owner of the resort along with his brother Roy and their wives, said they had to scramble to replace the bar's flood-damaged dance floor in time for last weekend's Irish festival. Despite soggy conditions caused by Lee, the event attracted about 1,500 people and he's expecting about 10,000 to show up for this weekend's motorcycle rally.

"We keep getting phone calls from people wondering if we're still going to have the festival," Handel said. "My 11-year-old daughter tells them, 'Our whole place burned down and we didn't stop. You don't think a little flooding is going to stop us?'"

Tourists spend about $200 million a year in Greene County, according to tourism director Warren Hart. Of that amount, about 15 percent is spent during the fall foliage season, he said.

As far as the storms' impact on the fall foliage outlook goes, leaf peepers needn't worry, one expert said.

While they packed high wind and heavy rain, Irene and Lee weren't strong enough to rip leaves off healthy trees, said Randall Swanson, an associate professor of forestry at Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks.

"We didn't lose a lot of foliage," he said. "If anything, it added moisture to the soil, which can keep the leaves longer on the tree."