The Trails to Economic Upswing

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS
Lynette Lundy-Beck stands near the Seaway Trail in Chaumont where a new informational kiosk about the trail and the village of Chaumont was placed recently.

By: Jake Newman

As more businesses and initiatives related to tourism continue to pop up across the north country, there is an ever-growing effort to organize the area’s assets. One product of this attempt is a sprawling network of tourism trails that work to direct people to a winery, artistic exhibit or other attraction that will then lead to another similar experience.

                Many of these trails in the north country are in their infancy, and some have yet to be completed. The goal is simple; to draw tourism dollars to the area and offer an array of businesses and attractions to compel visitors to return. While some of the first examples of such trails have fallen by the wayside due to lack of funding, others are built strictly to better equip the area in its attempt to target grant monies. Geography creates hardship for some trail initiatives, while others are held up by restrictions in funding. Community-based trail movements have also sprung up, and more inclusive trails seem to be on the minds of organizers moving forward.

                While many of the north country’s food, wine and art trails are new, organizing amenities in this fashion is no novel concept according to Gary S. DeYoung, executive director of the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council.

                “The trails idea has been around a long time. From my experience, it started with scenic byways which is a bit of a misnomer because they are not just structured because they are scenic, they are structured because they are scenic and have cultural and recreational amenities along the way,” he said.

                Mr. DeYoung said the area along the St. Lawrence River is part of the Seaway Trail, a national scenic byway that runs along the river and Great Lakes, which has been around since late 1970s. Scenic byways from the national level have some sort of interpretation and planning associated with them that helps promote general tourism, he said.

                He said while there used to be money earmarked for these types of trails by the National Highway Administration, the vision has changed and some of the funding has disappeared.

 

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS
A member of the Daughters of the American Revolution reads a letter from French relatives of the LeRay familyduring a ribbon for one side of an informational kiosk for the Seaway Trail.

               “The priorities at the national level changed from promotion and interpretation into bricks and mortar. So for years, we had a lot of ability using the Seaway trail to get all of the communities that, say, have historic lighthouses together and do some interpretation and co-promotion,” he said. “Most of that kind of funding has dried up at the federal level so it is very difficult to pursue those projects anymore.”

                Lately, though, New York State has picked up the slack when it comes to injecting money into trails initiatives. 

                “There is a network of state designated byways; Black River trail, maple trail … the north country tends to have a lot more of those than other parts of the state,” Mr. DeYoung said. “We have got kind of a spider web of trails that go through the Thousand Islands and Adirondacks.” 

                St. Lawrence County has created a wine trail to better market its vineyards and draw attention to what the county has to offer. While the trail is helpful, St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Director Brooke E. Rouse said the size of the county and the relatively small number of stops along the trail make the initiative problematic.

                “With the wine trail, the wineries are 30 miles apart and there is only three of them,” Mrs. Rouse said. “Our hope is that it inspires people to open more wineries.”

                The “Wine Trail” distinction is very specific, according to Mrs. Rouse. She said other similar businesses, like Kaneb Orchards, a cidery, do not qualify to be included in the wine trail.

                “It is hard to market that as just a wine trail when it is just three wineries,” she noted.

                To work around the restrictive designation of the wine trail, Mrs. Rouse said the county chamber is looking at a more inclusive approach to marketing local producers.

                “We have been looking at developing a culinary trail of some sort which is organized through (New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets) and Cornell Cooperative Extension have a couple people working on that,” Mrs. Rouse said.

                “It is basically any kind of farm-to-table experience that could include a farm stand, a farmers market, a farm experience, a restaurant that is doing farm-to-table, a bed and breakfast or hotel that is doing farm-to-table,” she continued. “Our plan was also to feature any kind of food related experience or business that might not necessarily be locally grown.”

                The cuisine trail plan St. Lawrence County is considering is already the focus of Mellissa M. Spence, sustainable agriculture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Lewis County. Ms. Spence said it has been a long process, but that 14 businesses have signed on to make up the cuisine trail for Lewis County.

                “It is going to basically be a 50 mile trail so you can do it all in one day if you want to,” she said. “It involves the vineyard, cheese processors, tree growers, landscaping. There are also some restaurants on there. So it is promoting local foods and for people to come and share what we have in this area.”

                Ms. Spence credits Sue Maring, co-owner of Tug Hill Vineyards, with expressing interest in such a proposal.

JUSTIN SORENSEN / NNY BUSINESS
From left, Jake, Bryan, and Don Moser are part of Maple Moser’s LLC, shown here in their sugar shack in Crogan.

                “For us, we are the only winery in Lewis County, so we need to have something that ties together all of the other tourism type businesses in the area,” Ms. Maring said. “We would be able to tie in the microbreweries, the cheese places, flower shops and the maple syrup producers.”

                Ms. Maring said the idea works for her business because her winery is relatively isolated. After a brief attempt to join the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail, she decided her marketing funds could better serve her elsewhere.

                “We were just too far out of the loop,” Ms. Maring explained. “We decided to pull out of it and spend our advertising dollars more in the Utica area because that is a little closer to us and there weren’t other wine trails down there and we were seeing a lot of people coming up from that area, so we thought that was a better market for us.”

                Mr. DeYoung said while there are plenty of wineries to justify the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail, there is a push to be more inclusive along the St. Lawrence River as well.

                “We have gone from branding that the Thousand Islands Seaway Wine Trail and now our promotions … we call it Taste 1000 which is a little broader definition and would include the brew pubs and the distilleries,” Mr. DeYoung said.

                St. Lawrence County’s geography means many of its attractions are several miles apart, and Mrs. Rouse said the county’s potential plan would include more than just food and beverage stops.

                “We were also hoping to mix our culinary trail with art and cultural aspects because the challenge with our county being so large is that there would be quite some distance between those specific locations on the trail, so we would want to fill that with other attractions for people to visit,” she said.

                One such art and cultural aspect is the barn quilt trend, which has been gaining popularity on two opposite ends of St. Lawrence County. Ruth McWilliams, the tourism and beautification coordinator for Colton, said the town is heading the barn quilt efforts in the foothills in collaboration with Colton-Pierrepont Central School.

                “The art teacher at the school has been very interested in barn quilts, so we have been working with students as young as in the fourth grade through the school art club,” she said.

                “The barn quilt trails are really neat because they are really homegrown, which I always love to see communities find something that is a good fit for their community and something they truly believe in and have ownership of,” Mrs. Rouse added.

                Hammond was the first community in the county to establish a barn quilt trail, an initiative that is community-based. Both Hammond and Colton barn quilt trails each have more than 50 quilt blocks, and Ms. McWilliams said there has been interest from other communities between the two established trails.

                “Right now, we have got this Canton push which is emerging as a way for us to keep pushing the barn quilt movement forward. We sort of hone in on parts of the county where there is interest and do some push, like workshops and events to bring greater attention at the community level,” she said.

                Ms. McWilliams hopes to use the Dairy Princess Parade in Canton to push the barn quilt tradition. She said the St. Lawrence County Historical Association plans to hang several barn quilts from its red barn building on Main Street, near the center of the parade route.

                Ms. McWilliams said the barn quilts have caught on well because of the individuality they allow people to illustrate. She also said it has pushed some residents in the area to better maintain property.

                “A lot of people just like to see these colorful images as they are driving around. It has also prompted some people who have put up barn quilts to actually speed up some improvement projects to their building. We have had some buildings repainted or resided in preparation for the barn quilts to be installed,” she said.

                Mrs. Rouse said she thinks some people feel a link between the barn quilts and the culture of the region.

                “It is kind of public art, it is history, it is culture, it really embraces the agricultural heritage of this area while kind of providing something as people are traveling through the rural landscape of the county,” she said.

                “We really get people to think about traditional quilt block patterns and how it relates to the place where their building is,” Ms. McWilliams added. “A sense of place and history is tied in with what we are trying to do in Colton.”

                The barn quilts may tie into another trails effort that has gained popularity in the north country recently, one that requires a slightly different means of travel.

                “In Colton, we have them facing both the road and the water. Increasingly, we have people with camps or cottages or boat houses putting them facing the water so boaters can see them,” Ms. McWillliams said.

                Blueway trails have sprung up across the area. Mr. DeYoung said the Black River Blueway trail includes boat launches and information that allows paddlers better access to the river. Ms. McWilliams has been heavily involved with the Raquette River Blueway Trail and said kiosks will soon be available along the route to inform interested parties of access points, history and other amenities.

                Leigh B. Rodriguez is Canton’s economic developer and has a hand in creating the Blueway Trail plan for the Grasse River. She explained that blueway trails look at the communities along a waterway, inventories its assets and looks at how it can be enhanced and be marketed for more tourism while also maintaining the waterway in a respectful manner.

                “It identifies places that might be good for a boat launch, for example,” she said. “You want to promote public access to the river and appreciation and utilization of the river in various ways.”

                Blueway trails are advantageous because they create cohesion between communities that share the river corridor, Ms. Rodriguez said.

                “I think part of the goal is that looking at one community individually, it may not be a destination or a place where you would spend a significant amount of time. But if you look at the entirety or a big stretch of the waterway and all of the communities along it and identify things to do all along the waterway, it might be a two or three day thing you could do,” she explained.

                Mrs. Rouse also pointed to collaboration between municipalities as a benefit for the blueway trail idea.

                “You are looking at communities that have never worked together, have never even thought of why they would work together,” she said. “Combining resources, leveraging resources to apply for grants to do some of the things that certainly would not be available to these smaller communities, it then gives them an opportunity to be on the map and work together to create an attraction.”

                “It gets people from multiple communities talking together, thinking about marketing and branding together and sharing assets, which to me is the key in a place where resources are so limited. It is so important to work together,” she continued.

                Ms. Rodriguez explained that a blueway trail is a plan, something that can be used as leverage when applying for funding to complete development projects.

                “It has a lot of community input into how it can be enhanced. For example, if there was a place identified for a boat launch, we could pursue money to put in a boat launch,” she said. “It gives us something to point to and say ‘look, this is something that has been identified by the community as a priority and now we want money to implement it.’”

                Restaurants, emergency services and convenience items are keys to providing a complete blueway trail for visitors. Ms. Rodriguez said that while there is no specific plan of attack for the Grasse River yet, she thinks the plan for the Oswegatchie Blueway Trail makes sense.

                The Oswegatchie Blueway Trail has broken up its plan into primary and secondary nodes along the river. Primary nodes offer services like a hospital, lodging and restaurants while secondary nodes will have gas and other necessary amenities.

                “I think that makes sense because you need to have the amenities that people are going to need when they are utilizing the asset while they are there,” she said. “For example, Rensselaer Falls is on the Oswegatchie and they are a secondary node. So if it is identified that a secondary node should have gas and convenience items, if those things aren’t in that community, that gives you a reason to say ‘hey look, if this trail comes together and we start marketing it, we really should put these things here.’”

                While Ms. McWilliams said there is no official link between the blueway trail and the barn quilt initiatives, she believes it is a possibility for the future.

                “I would say right now, the two aren’t hard-wired,” she said. “I am always looking for ways to connect the dots between things we are doing.”

                From blueways and barn quilts to wineries and locally produced foods, mapping out the goods and services offered in the north country has become an increasingly popular effort in marketing the area. While geography and governmental restrictions create a roadblock for some local trails, others flourish on the backs of community volunteers. A major push is on to create as much cohesion as possible between foods, beverages and the arts to create a more inclusive and well-rounded experience for visitors, which will, in theory, allow the businesses, organizations and individuals involved to expose themselves to a more robust local tourism economy.