Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

EDITORIAL: How many tourists fill a museum?

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NOTE TO TOURISTS: Skip this page. Nothing here you’d want to know. You’ll find good stuff to read on the next page or two. This is just, you know, local news.

Are they gone? If so, can anybody explain the tidal surge here of what you might call cultural activities, which must be part of the reason tourists come here, right? Maybe a longtime favorite like Olana is an exception because it’s about history, too. And leave room on that list for Lindenwald, Clermont, the Firefighting Museum and the county Historical Society. Then count on your fingers and toes a few times over all the galleries and stages and performance spaces from Hudson to Ancram, Ghent, Chatham and New Lebanon, plus the Art School, Omi, TSL and PS21 too. Even CSX delivers moving exhibitions of boxcar graffiti.

And now the Shaker Museum and Library plans to remake the three-story brick shell in uptown Chatham village that was at various times a cancer sanatorium, hotel, car dealership and gas station into what promises to be the museum’s new home.

And as if that weren’t enough, the non-profit Crandell Theatre, the only big screen this side of Albany, is getting a second screen in a building a block away from the Crandell, courtesy of local philanthropist Jack Shear. Is this too much of good thing?

Good or bad, we got wind of this trend several years ago when a privately funded study of the Capital Region found that Columbia County had the third highest concentration of residents nationwide who were part of the “creative economy” (only Taos, NM, and Brooklyn had higher rates). And now there’s a new study by a British firm called Tourism Economics that shows tourism spending in Columbia County grew last year over the year before by a remarkable 9%. That’s a lot more growth than Dutchess or Westchester counties, which are much bigger and have more developed tourism infrastructure.

But hold on. Let’s not get too creative. The charms of Columbia County start with the beauty of the land and water, the scale and character of development, which remains small, rural and agricultural. We have walkable communities and hike-able trails. We know how to throw an inclusive party regardless of the season. People of all kinds come here for the County Fair and the Speedway and to hunt and fish and they, together with their creative counterparts, spent $169 million here last year.

All that spending kept 2,435 people working here; that’s more than one out of every 10 jobs in this county, according to the Tourism Economics report. The other good news from the report is that the paychecks for the folks working in the tourism industry in the county amounted to “over $83 million” and around $10 million was collected by the county and our towns, city and the villages for “sales, property and hotel bed taxes.” Is it any wonder that the county is considering a tax on short-term rental transactions?

Not all tourist attractions are equal. Some pop up, then disappear. Others are seasonal, some function year round. When the site plan for the full-time Shaker Museum came before the Village of Chatham Planning Board this week, several neighbors raised concerns about how traffic generated by the museum would affect their homes and businesses. These are reasonable misgivings where they apply to individual safety, and the museum should find reasonable ways to mitigate potential threats.

As for the impact on business, as long as the museum operates within the law, it has no obligation to preserve the ways its neighbors conduct their businesses. It’s not clear the collectivist Shakers would approve of this capitalist reasoning, but there aren’t any Shaker communities here anymore to ask for guidance in running a complex modern museum.

We should all wish the Shaker Museum and Library well as it navigates this task of moving to Chatham. Its presence will enhance the village not only by the tourists and curious neighbors it draws but by the scholars, artists and artisans it attracts as well.

There will be days when parking is tighter than usual, but there will be the typical days when the museum’s traffic will not fill the parking spaces it has planned for. Those normal days will be the ones when residents try to recall how desolate that old brick building looked before it was turned into a stunning museum preserving artifacts of a local history with a worldwide reach. Tourists heading to the Shaker Museum will assume it’s been there forever.

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