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Congresswoman Annie Kuster discusses North Country tourism



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Congresswoman Annie Kuster, a Democrat of Hopkinton, who is flanked by AMC Director of Programs and Outreach Chris Thayer, left, of Sugar Hill and District I state Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat of Dalton, hosted a roundtable discussion on tourism and outdoor recreation, attended by about a dozen people who are experts in the field. (Photo by Edith Tucker) (click for larger version)
August 19, 2014
Congresswoman Annie Kuster discusses North Country tourism

By Edith Tucker

etucker@salmonpress.com

BRETTON WOODS — District 2 Congresswoman Annie Kuster, a Democrat of Hopkinton, hosted a roundtable discussion with a dozen experts on the state's second largest industry that, she explained, is becoming increasingly important to the North Country's economy.

Dr. Fran Rancourt, vice president of academic affairs at White Mountains Community College (WMCC) in Berlin, pointed out that the College now offers a one-year certificate program in outdoor recreation management under a new program developed by WMCC advisor Jack Verani and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) that includes off-season courses plus some internships.

Two other Hospitality concentrations are also available at WMCC: Hotel operations management and event management. New Health and Wellness programs are also designed to prepare today's students for the jobs in the recreational and health care industries that will open up in the next 10 years.

Steve Hilliard, a native of Lancaster who is now the managing director of the Omni Mount Washington Resort, and Bretton Woods Ski Area director Chris Ellms of Sugar Hill explained that it was not very long ago that golfing was the main activity but that now the Resort — first opened for winter stays in 1999 — offers "a whole palette of outdoor activities," ranging from the three-hour Canopy Tour and West Wall climbing experience to mountain biking, and both alpine and Nordic skiing.

Resort employees work closely with guests as they enjoy these activities, and those from the area bring a highly valued sense of "authenticity" to visitors, Hilliard said.

International students still, however, must fill many of these jobs since there are not enough available locals.

Ensuring that those living in this area can develop the needed "soft skills" to fill these jobs is an important goal, especially if The Balsams is reopened, Woodburn said.

On the previous day, would-be Balsams Resort developer Les Otten told Kuster than tentative plans call for creating 1,500 jobs in Dixville Notch. Woodburn pointed out to roundtable participants that it's important to think about who will fill all those new jobs.

Increasingly, job-hungry North Country residents have realized that it is no longer "hikers vs. snowmobilers" or "birdwatchers vs. ATV enthusiasts" but now recognize that the area is big enough for a number of activities to co-exist.

"We're all in this together," Woodburn added.

"People enjoy different kinds of things," said Kuster happily.

Cathy Conway of Jefferson, vice president of NCIC, explained that NH Grand aims to have visitors by the end of their stay able to say, "It was worth the trip" because of all that the region has to offer.

"Those who come for Santa's Village in Jefferson then are able to rent ATVs for another adventure, stretching their stay from one overnight to two or three," Conway explained.

"We're stronger together," said AMC Director of Programs and Outreach Chris Thayer of Sugar Hill, adding that AMC has created internships for Coös youth to learn about potential career paths, thanks to the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund.

"Tourism is the backbone of our growing economy," Conway continued, ticking off a list of small business startups: the White Mountain Café in Gorham where the owners bought the building; the Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennels of Jefferson that is building a new facility; and the Bear Rock Adventures in Colebrook that rents ATVs and OHRVs.

Local Chamber president Carol Carlson Cunningham, whose family runs Carlson's Lodge on Route 302, said that, overall, business is better in Twin Mountain. Visitors are not only going to the Cog and Santa's Village but also going "out in the woods," taking AMC hut-to-hut hikes, summiting the 4,000-footers, and taking day hikes.

Scot Henley, executive director of the Mount Washington Observatory, said that the nonprofit organization is truly "the nexus of tourism, education, and research" and that its Web site — www.mountwashington.org — that draws one million visitors a year serves as a "portal to the region," more than justifying the $1 million spent on developing and installing its latest educational offering, "Extreme Mount Washington" in the Sherman Adams Building on the summit. The Obs and Plymouth State University (PSU) have developed a new research partnership to further the Obs' research mission and cultivate collaborative research with PSU faculty and students. The initiative includes a new Ph.D.-level staff position, filled by Professor Eric Kelsey, who earned his Ph.D. at UNH and serves both as the Obs' Director of Research and a PSU assistant professor.

The Obs board of trustees is also discussing the possibility of having him work a great deal more in Washington, D.C., securing grants, Henley said, noting that making this possible would require hiring a CEO to manage the Obs' North Country operations.

Phil Bryce, DRED's Director of Parks and Recreation, explained that the state parks' financial condition has been stabilized, thanks to state legislative action. Creating a business development position is being eyed as a way to focus on enhancing state parks by "growing" their multiple uses and fee-based amenities, such as more campsites at Jericho Mountain State Park.

Bryce said one of Parks' challenges is to retain park managers, most of whom hold seasonal jobs.

Hilliard pointed out that the Omni Mount Washington has 1,000 employees in the winter — double the 500 needed in the summer — and Bryce agreed that creating a job-sharing arrangement could be mutually beneficial.

Only about a third of the Resort's revenue stream comes from overnight stays at the Grand Hotel, Hilliard said.

AMC president John Judge said that the Club has worked collaboratively with the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) since its inception as well as other stakeholders, establishing Best Practices that they share with other nonprofit organizations across the country.

The well-being of the rural outdoor economy and helping to develop career paths and skill-building opportunities for the next generation are high on the AMC's priority list, Judge said.

A record-breaking number of hikers are climbing in the White Mountains and on the Presidential Range this year. AMC hut occupancy is up, which tends to be a bellwether for overall numbers, explained AMC senior vice president Walter Graff of Randolph. AMC Pinkham Notch and Highland Center facilities have been bustling with activity, and Graff also noted that he's noticed a greater diversity among visitors hitting the trail.

AMC has contracted to have an economic impact study done at PSU under the aegis of PSU Associate Professor Daniel Lee, an economist, due by the end of 2015. This will be the first such assessment done since 1994-1995, when the federal special permitting process for the AMC huts and facilities located on the WMNF was underway.

That was well before the Highland Center opened, however, Graff noted.

Hilliard also told Kuster (see related story) that he is concerned about one of President Barack Obama's Executive Orders, issued earlier this year that potentially could raise the cost of running ski and other operations on the WMNF.

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