Cooperstown, New York among the many tourism-dependent small towns bracing for a hard year

In this Feb. 1, 2019, file photo, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum stands in Cooperstown, N.Y. On Saturday, March 14, 2020, the hall said it will close to the public beginning Sunday at 5 p.m. due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Hans Pennink | AP

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Heading northwest out of New York City will take you — as the sights of high-rise apartments and strip malls give way to forests and dairy farms — to Cooperstown, New York, home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

It is here, in a village of 1,700 year-round residents, where hundreds of thousands flock each summer to honor the heroes of their childhood in a place known far and wide as baseball’s Mecca.

The tourism that typically inundates the village and neighboring towns between June and September creates, at least for a few months, a melting pot of fans from around the globe unified in their love of the sport. 

But the spread of the coronavirus across the country, and especially in New York, threatens to derail the Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend, one of the town’s biggest annual moneymakers. The disease has already forced the Cooperstown Dreams Park, home to one of the country’s largest little league tournaments, to cancel its 2020 season in an already hefty blow to the town’s revenues.

The historic pullback in baseball tourism, expected to cost merchants and restaurants here somewhere in a range between $50 million and $150 million, will exact a similar toll on small towns across the country as states close commerce to combat the virus and as tourists are hesitant to start traveling again.

Tourist-driven destinations from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are all likely to feel the impact of the virus and government efforts to contain its spread throughout the peak summer season.

One local merchant following the Dreams Park and Hall of Fame announcements is Vin Russo, whose retail outfit Mickey’s Place has been selling baseball apparel and cards for 30 years.

When your economy really relies upon visitorship … we’re very dependent upon people coming into Cooperstown, which makes these times very difficult,” he said in a phone interview.

Baseball blues

There’s perhaps no single greater revenue source for the “birthplace of baseball” than the annual tournament held at the Cooperstown Dreams Park.

This massive sports complex, five miles south of the village and billed as the “greatest tournament in America,” is home to some 23 baseball fields that draw thousands of players over the span of 13 weeks each year.

The tournament, whose alumni include Angels slugger Mike Trout and Dodgers relief pitcher David Price, draws more than 14,000 players and coaches per year at $1,300 a person. And the tourism it brings in snarls Main Street during the summer months, as thousands of little leaguers (and their tens of thousands of family) flock to local merchants to buy hats, gloves, bats, T-Shirts, keychains and trading cards.

Mike Trout

Getty Images

So, when the Dreams Park announced in March that it wouldn’t be opening in 2020 out of an abundance of caution around the coronavirus, many of Cooperstown’s top business leaders were forced to recast their outlook for the year.

Merchant Russo explained that his shop, like other retailers on Main Street, must place some 90% of its merchandise orders half a year in advance to ensure they arrive in time for the summer open. That can turn into a problem, he said, if the sales you budgeted for don’t materialize.

“We’ve attempted to do things, to adjust where we can. But by and large, we will be getting this merchandise in,” he added. “The real inherent issue becomes how to pay for the goods that are coming if you don’t have the offsetting revenues?”

Even though it was only the final day of March, Russo said the Dreams Park’s closure has already forced him to lower the heat at his retail and restaurant businesses at 74 Main Street and plan for fewer employees in the year ahead.

“The Dreams Park probably represents about two-thirds of the business that we would get in the month of June. Now in July in August, I estimated it to be around half,” he said.

“The most critical part is unfortunately having to lay off some people who work for us, either full- or part-time over the course of the year,” Russo said. “We employ 20 part-time summer employees, so it’s going to impact our ability to hire. … I would expect that we’ll have a decline in the number of people we hire this year.”

Dreams Park Chief Operations Officer Mike Walter did not respond to phone calls and email requesting comment.

But of utmost concern now is the fate of the Hall’s 2020 Induction Weekend. The annual July ceremony was originally expected to draw some 80,000 fans with longtime and beloved New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter set to claim his place among baseball’s legends.

COVID-19 has already forced the cancellation Hall of Fame Classic weekend, an annual May event that gathers Hall of Famers and MLB players in a seven-inning game. But with health officials warning, if not outright prohibiting, large gatherings, the Hall’s directors remain in talks whether to cancel Induction Weekend 2020, scheduled to begin July 24.

Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees tips his cap to the crowd during the final game of his career against the Boston Red Sox on September 28, 2014 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.

Michael Ivins | Boston Red Sox | Getty Images

“Discussions regarding this public health emergency’s potential impact on 2020 Induction Weekend will take place in due time as we all learn more about the course and impact of the pandemic,” Jon Shestakofsky, the Hall of Fame’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email.

But Russo likely represents just one of hundreds of business owners that throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states that are likely to see a slump in sales in 2020 as a result of efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Budgetary brushback

Allen Ruffles, the county’s new treasurer, is doing his best to model the area’s expected tax revenue pullback.

Ruffles works from the Otsego County Office Building, an austere brick structure that sticks out amid the small mom-and-pop retail shops further down on Main.

The building, which houses a variety of local government departments including the DMV, is eerily quiet for a Monday. The usual drone of copiers and banter of county employees has been replaced by uppercase lettering warning that access to the building is now “BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.”

For a treasurer whose county is almost surely to see annual tax revenues down tens of millions, 34-year-old Ruffles is upbeat. The can-do attitude, perhaps a product of his recent tour with the Army Reserves in Africa, also manifests itself in Ruffles’ appearance: Cobalt sleeves rolled up, buzz cut, face shaved clean.

For safety, Ruffles sits several feet away behind a desk that includes embellishments from his young son, Cooper, as a bright red T-Rex figurine makes itself at home next to a stapler and tape.

“It’s just not good. They’re scared, a lot of them can’t make their mortgages or their rents,” he said. “And now that they know that the Dreams Park isn’t coming, a lot of the people that own B&Bs and lodges are just getting crushed. They collected all of those deposits up front and put it into improving the house, paying the bills from the winter. And now they have to return that money.”

He says he predicted a $3.2 million drop in sales tax revenues in 2020, but the New York State Association of Counties estimates a loss in the range of 5% to 15%, or $2 million to $6 million.

Back-of-the-envelope math using the county’s 4% sales tax levy as a guide suggests that county businesses have, in the best-case scenario, at least $50 million in qualifying sales at risk this year. Around $150 million could disappear if the association’s worst-case scenario plays out.

Governments in New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts have all moved to close business in an unprecedented effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. At the time this article published the pandemic had infected about 1.3 million globally and killed at least 10,000 in the U.S.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York on March 16 was one of the first U.S. governors to order his state’s restaurants, gyms and movie theaters closed in response to the public health threat. And while Cuomo has garnered support for his decisive action to protect public health throughout the states, he also acknowledged the toll forced closures have on the economy.

More than 350,000 state residents filed for unemployment benefits during the week that ended March 28, an increase of more than 350% from the week prior.

Following the arrival in New York City of the U.S. Naval hospital ship Comfort, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen during a press conference at the field hospital site at the Javits Center.

Albin Lohr-Jones | Pacific Press | Getty Images

Bassett Healthcare, one of region’s largest health-care networks with five hospitals spread across four counties, leads local efforts to combat the virus from its main campus in Cooperstown. The network, which declined to make a representative available for comment, did confirm on Thursday that it’s tested nearly 900 people to date with a 10% positive rate.

Otsego County, of which Cooperstown is part, said in a press release that it had 29 positive COVID-19 cases as of April 5. Of those 29, three are currently hospitalized, six have recovered and are off mandatory isolation and one has died.

‘An incredible burden’

John Shideler, the general manager of the Otesaga Resort Hotel, eagerly awaits a return to normal business in Cooperstown and New York.

Shideler, who cut his teeth in the accommodations business at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and later as the general manager of the Williamsburg Inn in Colonial Williamsburg, says the Dreams Park’s closure has led to an unprecedented surge in cancellations.

“From an economic perspective, the Dreams Park’s canceling its entire season has put an incredible burden on the community,” he said. “We’re not like a destination location like the Bahamas, where you’re going to be able to rebook these reservations to a future date.”

Perhaps Cooperstown’s most-recognizable structure, the Otesaga was built more than 110 years ago and does its best to maintain some semblance of 1909 propriety. Uniformed valets greet you under a towering Federal-style brick façade and an imposing front portico, supported by a cast of 30-foot columns.

The 132-room resort, once voted one of the “Top 50 U.S. Golf Resorts” by Conde Nast Traveler, also overlooks the southern shore of nine-mile Otsego Lake, the famed “Glimmerglass” of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales.”

But despite its historic charms and manicured landscaping, the hotel still relies in large part on the traffic generated by baseball attractions, Shideler said.

“When you’re at a destination because of a group, and they have no other reason to come because they were coming for this family get-together for the kids to play baseball, you can’t book that for next year,” he said. “Either because these kids may be aging out or they don’t know what they’re going to be doing next year: Maybe Johnny’s not going to want to play baseball next year.”

Shideler said that while his 85 full-time staff members remain on the job, the property relies heavily on international workers during the peak season and it remains to be seen if their visa programs will be available this year.

Tina Macaluso, resident of neighboring Fly Creek, said that she and her husband had to return every deposit they’d collected for three houses they lease through Vrbo during each of the 13 weeks of the Dreams Park season.

“People buy houses, like our house in Cooperstown … knowing full well that they’re going to make money through Dreams Park,” said she. “If the Dreams Park wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have bought any of these houses. That’s why people buy rental houses up here.”

Macaluso said she and husband George are trying to come up with innovative ideas to conserve some of their income at their properties. One option, she said, is to let their houses as longer-term rentals for doctors or other local workers who are in the area longer than a week.

She said she also applied for loans from the Small Business Administration in the hopes that she’d be able to pay off the debt in future years once the normal tourism returns.

“I want to do everything I possibly can, whatever it is, to make sure every dollar goes back to our guests and stay afloat with the business,” she said. “Every single day, we just kind of try to think of outside the box.”

Small-town silver lining

Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh is also concerned about the upcoming season.

She said that the village is anticipating a significant hit to revenues it generates through tourism-based paid parking. Parking fees, castigated by many of Cooperstown’s merchants when they were introduced in 2013, have proved to be one of the village’s best sources of revenue.

“That has been very successful for the village: It’s allowed us to not increase village property tax, our property levy, in seven budget cycles,” she said. “We usually gain well over $400,000 on our paid parking revenue. That’s significant: That’s like a between a 25% and a 28% [property] tax increase that doesn’t have to occur.”

Parking fees often account for about 10% of annual revenues for the village’s general fund, which pays for a variety of the village’s expenses from street maintenance to the fire and police departments.

But for as bad as the upcoming season may be, Tillapaugh said she’s grateful that Cooperstown’s taken efforts in recent years to promote and expand its commercial, downtown area while maintaining the close-knit and historic nature of the town.

“All this infrastructure work you see occurring on Main Street … new sidewalks, and street furniture and the new solar-compacting trash cans: These are grants we get,” she said. “What we’ve been trying to do is improve our downtown so that the infrastructure is there and make it attractive so tourists visit.”

A current village project designed to promote business traffic includes expanding the sidewalk outside of Mel’s at 22, an American restaurant at 22 Main Street owned and operated by chef Brian Wrubleski.

“You work so hard for your clientele, and then all of a sudden, you’ve got to close the doors because of a virus that impacts everybody,” he said. “And this doesn’t just impact the restaurants. It impacts everybody all the way down the line to the farmers.”

Having worked in the food business for 35 years, Wrubleski opened Mel’s in 2014 and named the restaurant in memory of his wife, Maryellen, who died the year before. His daughters and son-in-law help him run the business and manage his social media presence.

“We had to change our whole model from full service to takeout-delivery. It’s now a matter of getting the right boxes and dropping some of the price points,” he continued. Mel’s now offers family-style meals — like shrimp over ravioli, chicken parmesan and an eight-ounce bistro filet — in addition to daily specials like Taco Tuesdays.

Wrubleski, articulating the disproportionate challenge faced by restaurants nationwide, also said the crisis has forced him to lay off a portion of his full-time staff.

The Labor Department’s Friday jobs report showed that businesses that prepare meals for either on-site (full-service restaurants) or off-premise (take-out and delivery) consumption made up half of March’s payroll plunge of 701,000.

“I had a staff of 28 on the offseason, and then I had to reduce it down. That was pretty depressing for me because a lot of my staff, and a lot of the industry, they work paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

But despite the temporary overhaul at Mel’s, Wrubleski said that what’s kept him optimistic — now, and in the years since his wife’s death — has been Cooperstown’s small-town loyalty.

“I love tourism. I love the people that come in, I enjoy the money. But the locals are the ones that support me throughout the year,” he said. “So, yeah, this’ll bring us closer. We’ll be stronger, we’ll get through it. But it’s not going to be easy.”

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