The Recorder – Bringing ‘a hidden gem’ to light: State officials talk about importance of tourism in Franklin County

GREENFIELD — Two state officials traveled from eastern Massachusetts to Greenfield Friday morning for a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast focused on tourism and the economic life it can breathe into the region.

Keiko Matsudo Orrall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, and Tony D’Agostino, director of research for the agency, visited Terrazza Ristorante to talk about the importance of the money tourists absorb by the hotel industry and to encourage professionals in the region to capitalize on the natural resources at their disposal.

“I am struck by the beauty of Franklin County,” said Orrall, a four-term former state representative and Smith College alumnus. “I think sometimes it takes someone with fresh eyes to remind you that you live in a very beautiful part of the Commonwealth. It really is a hidden gem.”

D’Agostino jokingly thanked attendees for waking him up at 4:30 a.m., then presided over an energetic presentation on national tourism statistics.

He said Massachusetts welcomed about 30 million domestic visitors a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, ranking the state 20th in the nation. The Bay State also welcomed 1.8 million foreign visitors (eighth in the country) and just under 700,000 visitors from Canada (10th in the country). D’Agostino said Massachusetts has consistently ranked 16th in combined domestic and international travel spending.

In 2019, he explained, there was $24.9 billion in domestic and international spending combined, supporting 155,000 jobs and generating $1.6 billion in state and local taxes, which he said , represents “a large part” of the state budget.

D’Agostino explained that the definition of a tourist is someone who travels 50 miles one way or spends the night in paid accommodation. It is defined this way for the sake of continuity and to differentiate “fresh money from the state”.

“If I leave my house and go left to McDonald’s or right to Burger King, that’s not new money for the state. It’s just a substitution,” he said. “When I make the conscious decision to go 50 miles or more or stay overnight somewhere, it’s fresh money for the state.”

Comments from special guests were preceded by remarks from Jon Schaefer, owner of Berkshire East Mountain Resort and Zoar Outdoor Adventure Resort, and Michael Nelson, president of the Franklin County Agricultural Society. Schaefer Enterprises and the Agricultural Society, which operates the Franklin County Fairgrounds, were breakfast sponsors.

Schaefer, whose father bought the ski business in 1976, said his businesses account for about 115,000 visits to the community each year.

“We have the backbone of the community here that a lot of these people don’t even know about,” Schaefer said. “And what we need to do as a community is not just tell a better story among ourselves about why this place is so special, but also advertise it to people who drive by (the Interstate) 91.

“Our job is to tell our own story better, and that’s the role of the chamber, that’s the role of business owners,” Schaefer continued.

Nelson said the fairgrounds received several grants that helped the property survive a global pandemic. He said the nonprofit “really takes this property to a whole new level and makes it a year-round destination for our community,” adding that the agricultural society has invested more than $600,000, including grants and donations from the public, in the last six months. The fairground recently completed a few projects, including a wiring upgrade and an LED lighting installation. He mentioned that the property holds events almost every weekend until the end of October.

Nelson also thanked everyone who donated to support the fairgrounds.

“So if you were one of those people who helped us, thank you very much,” he said. “You really helped make the fairgrounds the facility it is becoming and got us through some dark days.”

Rob Stewart, creative director at Transit Authority Figures in Northampton, provided insight into his company’s efforts to help Franklin County gain exposure and marketability. His company plans to roll out branded merchandise including pint glasses, coasters and tote bags.

“(We) see Franklin County as a small country, like Iceland, trying to build its brand identity and cast a spell,” he told the Greenfield Recorder at the fairgrounds, where Nelson brought about 10 people – including Orrall and State Representative Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland – on an after-breakfast walking tour to highlight recent upgrades to the facility. Orrall and Chamber of Commerce executive director Diana Szynal also embarked on a tour of Tree House Brewing in Deerfield.

Nelson showed his guests the fairground buildings and detailed the process of replacing all the old electrical panels and LED lighting on each utility pole. The project cost $150,000, funded by a $70,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and an $80,000 loan. He said upgrades would be a lifeblood for the fairgrounds as RVs and food vendors needed reliable power.

Contact Domenic Poli at: [email protected] or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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