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Legislature Greenlights Buying Property for New Countywide Visitors Center

Monticello, NY – A majority of Sullivan County legislators this week agreed to acquire 21 acres for a new visitors center, to be located in Rock Hill and built without using local taxpayer dollars.

“As a prime tourist destination, the County needs a visitors center that will show off the best we have to offer and will also adequately house our designated tourism agency, which is currently the Sullivan Catskills Visitors Association (SCVA),” said District 1 Legislator Scott Samuelson. “The facility will be right off Route 17’s Exit 109 in the heart of Rock Hill’s downtown business district.”

“Even in this age of digital access to information, it’s important and useful to have a physical facility where people can find all the resources they need to access and improve tourism opportunities in Sullivan County – staffed by the people who know how to use and share those resources,” remarked District 8 Legislator Ira Steingart, chair of the Economic Development Committee, to which the SCVA reports monthly.

The approval granted by legislators authorizes the property purchase and the concept of a visitors center. Further approvals by the Legislature will be required to build, open and operate the visitors center.

“This authorization to purchase the land along Rock Hill Drive is an important first step,” added District 9 Legislator Alan Sorensen, who lives in and represents Rock Hill. “Neither this Legislature nor the SCVA anticipates a new building will cost the $4.5 million figure that’s been the focus of so much inaccurate speculation – indeed, we expect it will be lower, and we will soon start seeing much firmer and more realistic numbers, now that we can confidently proceed with creating a design based on the property. I am excited to help bring this project to Rock Hill and will work to ensure space is retained on this site to accommodate our Farmer’s Market and Summer Concerts.”

The cost of constructing this facility (including the $425,000 purchase of the property authorized this week) ultimately will not be borne by local taxpayers. While the County will front the bonding, all current and future County-designated tourism agencies will be legally obligated to reimburse the full amount, paid out of their share of the room taxes collected from the guests of every lodging establishment in Sullivan County.

“Through our ongoing promotion of every corner of the region and our support of businesses and attractions, the SCVA has brought enormous wealth to the Sullivan Catskills, including taxpayers, who otherwise would bear $2,238 in increased taxes per household. In fact, in 2018 alone, tourism contributed $33 million in sales tax,” SCVA President and CEO Roberta Byron-Lockwood noted. “We are deeply grateful to the legislators who realized this new visitors center will only enhance that wealth and our visibility to a regional, national and global audience who’s eager to learn more about our world-class amenities and destinations. This center will be a place of which every Sullivan County resident can be proud.”

While the final design concept is not complete, it is anticipated that the visitors center will include a building of up to 8,000 square feet, housing brochures and displays, with meeting rooms and space for pop-up venues, art and history exhibits, promotional events, vending machines and comfort stations. Outdoor features will include a farmer’s market, picnic area, dog run, and nature trail highlighting the pristine beauty of the Sullivan Catskills. 

Current plans include having the County’s designated tourism agency – the SCVA – manage and operate the Visitors Center under a contract with County government.

“When tourists come to the Sullivan Catskills, they spend their leisure dollars throughout the entire County, which provides customers for our businesses, jobs for our residents and a continued financial growth of our robust local economy,” said SCVA board member Dan Paradiso, Director of Sales & Marketing for one of the County’s newest attractions, the Kartrite Resort and Indoor Waterpark.

“This is a win-win for everyone,” said Alan Rosenblatt, president of the SCVA board. “The expense of this project will not be borne by Sullivan County taxpayers because it is being financed through the occupancy tax paid by visitors to our hotels and B&Bs. At the same time, the center will help support the tourism industry, which significantly benefits local businesses and residents.”

“The visitors center will enhance SCVA’s tourism promotion efforts by providing a physical location from which travelers can connect to the County’s tourism attractions and happenings,” said Byron-Lockwood. “Working in concert with SCVA’s electronic and social media campaigns, together with our marketing efforts, the visitors center will be an enormous asset to the County for decades to come.”

THE FACTS ABOUT THE VISITORS CENTER

Info courtesy of the Sullivan County Visitors Association

Sullivan County does not currently have a Visitors Center. Such a Center could provide community space and tourism support offices to increase tourism by attracting and welcoming visitors, directing them to our various communities and hospitality-oriented businesses.  The Legislature has approved the concept and the process. 

Located in Rock Hill, the Visitors Center will be a County-owned facility, built and operated for the purpose of increasing tourism. Payment for the Visitors Center ultimately will be made through funds collected from the Room Occupancy Tax.  The Visitors Center concept aligns with the purpose of a tourism program, which is to redirect visitors throughout all our towns and communities, generating wealth, commerce and visitation.

Presently, the Sullivan County Legislature has not committed to a specific building design or site plan for the proposed Visitors Center. However, there is a shared vision with the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA) that the Visitors Center will be multi-functional, to portray the entirety of the County in a positive light.

SCVA will continue to aggressively promote the County utilizing all conventional and state- of- the-art means available to it. Building a Visitors Center - one of which we can all be proud and one that makes a lasting impression on visitors - will not be at the expense of other marketing efforts.  The Visitors Center will supplement and support the marketing efforts and public relations that have already been deployed and are working well.

A Visitors Center located in the Sullivan Catskills with easy off/on access will be a state-of-the-art facility for millions of visitors traveling the Route 17/I-86 corridor.  Visitors will be greeted by knowledgeable tourism professionals to assist guests looking to explore the Sullivan Catskills. 

  • The Center will promote and cross-market the natural assets, attractions, local agricultural and cultural events for the entire Sullivan Catskills. 
  • The Center will include limited vending with a picnic area landscaped with indigenous plants and artist sculptures from throughout the region. This location will be ideal for hiking trails and wildlife interpretation.
  • The Center will feature dedicated space for pop-up venues, local food/culinary demonstrations, farm markets, and art and history exhibits as well as craft fairs of upcoming event promotions.
  • It will serve as a one-stop physical location from which travelers and residents can connect to local businesses and services, to promote the vision that the Sullivan Catskills is visitor-friendly and encourages community ownership of the area. 
  • A great visitor/experiential center is valuable to local tourism.  A warm welcome and knowledgeable assistance from a visitor center is the first impression for a traveler and can make all the difference in the economic impact of their visit.  Small businesses get excellent exposure when professional staff recommend them to visitors.
  • This is a partnership between Sullivan County and its designated tourism agency - the Sullivan County Visitors Association.  Although the original funding will be bonded by the County, the bond plus interest will be paid back through an annual portion of the dedicated occupancy collection dollars (Occupancy Tax). Therefore, the funding will not be a burden to the local taxpayer. These funds are collected by accommodations on every visitor staying in the Sullivan Catskills. 
  • The budget for the project is based on a concept to include purchase and site preparation of a Center with office space, hiking and walking trails, community showcase area and more. The building itself is envisioned to be up to 8,000 sq. ft.
  • The Center will also house the offices of the SCVA.
  • The growth of tourism in the Sullivan Catskills is demonstrated by the latest NYS Tourism Spending Study.  Sullivan County increased visitors spending by 14.5% in 2018 over 2017 with $515 million.

THE FACTS ABOUT THE ROOM OCCUPANCY TAX

The State’s Enabling Legislation:
In 1989 the New York State Legislature authorized the County of Sullivan to implement a tax on hotel and motel customers by enacting Section 1202-j of the Tax Law.  The specific intent of the tax was to generate funds that can be used to promote tourism in Sullivan County.  Importantly, the tax is not collected from, or a burden on, the local taxpayer. Instead, the tax is paid only by visitors to the area who book hotel rooms, motel rooms, bed-and-breakfast establishments and similar lodging arrangements.  

The current State law provides that the amount collected from the tax can only be used to promote further tourism in the County.  Specifically, the law requires the County to pay 85% of the funds generated from the tax to “a not-for-profit corporation under contract with the County for the promotion of tourism in the County.” Pursuant to the statute, 15% can be used to offset the County’s administrative costs in administering the County’s Local Law.

The County’s Local Law:
Having been empowered to create an Occupancy Tax by NYS Tax Law, the then-Sullivan County Legislature enacted Local Law 7 of 1999 that provides a legal process to collect and administer the Occupancy Tax on the local level. This Local Law is now codified as Chapter 182, Part 3, Article VIII of the Sullivan County Code. 

Consistent with the State enabling statute, the County’s Local Law requires at least 85% of the proceeds of the tax be turned over to a “not-for-profit corporation under contract with the County” for the promotion of tourism within the County. These funds cannot be used for any other purpose.

The Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA):
Since 1997, the County of Sullivan has contracted with the SCVA to promote tourism for the County.  SCVA is the not-for-profit corporation contracted by the County for this purpose.

As a not-for-profit, the SCVA is governed by an 11- to 17-member board of directors who serve without compensation.  The Board is comprised of a diverse group of individuals who are also stakeholders in the County’s overall economic success. The Sullivan County Legislature approves all candidates to the SCVA Board of Directors and helps set the priorities and monitor the performance of the agency by regularly participating in meetings of the agency.  The SCVA also reports to the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee on a monthly basis.

SCVA’s professional staff is led by its President/CEO, Roberta Byron-Lockwood, and employs four support staff.  The professional staff carry out the vision and decisions of the Board of Directors and furthers the tourism polices of the County Legislature.  

The SCVA is funded almost completely by the Room Occupancy Tax explained above.  Additional revenue comes from membership fees, advertising sales, and grants.  The SCVA does not receive funds from local real estate or sales tax.

The SCVA is responsible for marketing Sullivan County as a tourism destination and has regularly won industry awards for its efforts.  Its efforts and the efforts of its member businesses have contributed to Sullivan County’s re-emergence as an international tourism destination.  One of the fruits of this success includes an increase in the Room Occupancy Tax receipts.  In fact, the SCVA reports that in 2018, Occupancy Tax receipts demonstrated a 44.9% increase over 2017 numbers, and that visitors to the County have generated more than $33 million in local sales tax, reflecting an approximate 30:1 direct return on investment. Because of this success, there are more funds to reinvest in tourism-related endeavors, including investment in a Visitors Center.