Winter phenom plan at the Fort

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

Warren County has made its biggest occupancy tax commitment ever — $3 million — to “seed” an immersive outdoor winter-themed attraction running from December to March for the next five years on the grounds and ramparts of the fort at the Fort William Henry in Lake George.

It will be organized by the newly formed Warren County Winter Coalition and created by Montreal-based Moment Factory.

“Moment Factory blends advanced lighting, video, architecture, music, and special effects to transform venues and events into memorable experiences,” Coalition materials said, for worldwide clients such as “the NFL, Microsoft, Sony, Toyota, Royal Caribbean, and Madonna.”

“This will be a game changer for the area,” the Winter Coalition touts, “allowing year-round employment, improved revenues, consistent cash flows, restaurants filled and improved occupancies at lodging facilities.”

It said the project “supports the entire county with a long-term, five-year plan”

“The purpose of this attraction is to fill area hotels, restaurants, attractions and events by creating a holiday and winter attraction that is on the scale of a Disney attraction created by one of the top creative developers in the world, with a rich history of creating attractions that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors,” the Coalition’s application said.

They anticipate four to six digital installations, a free-flow pathway lasting 45-60 minutes, accommodating 400-600 guests per hour, from 6-10 p.m. nightly. The Coalition projects attendance of 120,000 in year one, operating from December through March. Admission would be $29 on weekends, $24 midweek, with child and other discounts.

Proponents project revenue in year one of $3,342,000.

Total project cost is put at $4,845,642.

The amount above the Occupancy Tax-funded $3 million is from expected ticket sales.

The Coalition said it will repay the county’s $3-million within five years with 50% of projected net profits. They plan to reinvest the other 50% to improve the attraction, they said.

The funding won unanimous support of the Board, with one exception. Glens Falls Ward 1 Supervisor Jack Diamond voted against the $3 million expenditure, citing lack of guarantees that the Coalition will repay the County. Supervisors Claudia Braymer, Mike Wild and Hilary Stec were absent.

Lake Luzerne Supervisor Gene Merlino chairs the county tourism committee and led the Occupancy Tax Committee’s Winter Coalition meeting in the absence of committee chair Dennis Dickinson.

Mr. Merlino said the $3 million for the winter light attraction will come from surplus Occupancy Tax revenues.

He said the surplus was as high as $6 million before the Oc Tax committee decided “to put some of that to use.”

“In the last two or three years the Occupancy Tax has been growing,” Mr. Merlino said. “We are taking the money out of a basic reserve fund. The name of the game is to spend the money, to get more.”

The Coalition said they expect the Winter Experience will drive an additional $6.8 million for hotels and other tourist housing in the county, raising the county’s bed tax receipts by approximately $275,000 every year, “which should put you to $8 million a year in bed tax revenue,” Sara Mannix, a Coalition member and owner of Mannix Marketing, said in the Occupancy Tax Committee meeting.

“Down the road,” Mr. Merlino said, “as money comes in, the Coalition will help finance this, and they anticipate paying back the county in five years. We are all strong on it.”

Asked if the Board independently vetted the numbers, Mr. Merlino said. “We’ve seen the results they showed us. We all looked at them.”

Highlighted in red, the Coalition asked: “If not now, then when? If not this, then what? If we do not capitalize on this opportunity, competing counties will, and we will lose a competitive advantage and market share.”

The Winter Coalition

The Warren County Winter Coalition — the business group organizing the new immersive winter event at Fort William Henry, grew out of a committee that launched the WinterFest promotion in 2020-2021 to attract visitors during Covid especially after the Lake George Winter Carnival was cancelled.

Members of the committee are:
Lake George Mayor Ray Perry
Lake George Deputy Town Supervisor Vincent Crocitto II
Vincent Crocitto III of the Lake George Holiday Inn and other accommodations businesses
Sara Mannix, founder and chief executive of Mannix Marketing
Tom Lloyd and Ken Mark of Adirondack Studios, scenic and entertainment design company
Americade chief Christian Dutcher
Gina Mintzer and Emily Frost of the Lake George Regional Chamber of Commerce

What ‘Winter Experience’ might look like

The planned “Winter Experience” within the Fort William Henry will be designed and built by Moment Factory, a firm founded in 2001 and headquarted in Montreal with studios in Tokyo, Paris, New York City and Singapore.

It has done “more than 500 unique projects world wide,” said press info.

Moment Factory representatives told Warren County via a Zoom interview that it plans an immersive, “innovative, outdoor winter-themed multimedia attraction” meant to evoke “nostagia” for such experiences as “the crackle of the fire on a cold day.”

They added, “Winter Experience” is just a working title. “It will be something much more exciting.”

The presentation suggested five possible zones — all strictly preliminary:

A Virtual Chalet, where “shadowy figures play a joyful folk tune as guests enjoy the show and share the warmth of the fire,”

The First Snow, “millions of mini lasers light the way, evoking that magical moment when the first snow of the season begins to fall”

The Full Moon, “a luminous installation…seen from all corners of the site, but up close its majesty truly comes to life”

The Forest: “Scenography evokes the feeling of a snowy forest. As visitors weave through the trees, moving lights beckon them to discover.

The Campfire: “Fire and lights dance,” with “digital campfire and immersive lighting” — Cathy DeDe

Coalition members directly involved in the winter attraction

Chronicle managing editor Cathy DeDe writes: Several members of the Warren County Winter Coalition may stand to benefit directly from the Winter Experience project.

Fort William Henry is the site of the attraction, and the project budget has $233,940 earmarked for “rent/lease.”

Christian Dutcher, director of Americade, is expected to manage the event as he did the WinterFest during Covid.

Sara Mannix’s Mannix Marketing will create the website and do other web work.

Behan Communications is not a Coalition committee member but will handle media, the application said.

The Chronicle sought more information on these arrangements, as well as clarification for some of the figures presented on the application and in county meetings.

Sam Luciano, the Coalition President, and President of Fort William Henry, referred the inquiry to Mark Behan.

Mr. Behan said he is not authorized at this point to comment.

Merlino: Ice Castles to return; ‘double bang’ with new ‘weather proof’ attraction

Lake Luzerne Town Supervisor Gene Merlino, who chairs the Warren County Tourism Committee, confirmed to The Chronicle Monday that the Ice Castles attraction will return this winter for its third year.

“I was just meeting with them last week,” Mr. Merlino said.

With the new Winter Experience next-door at the Fort William Henry, “it’ll be a real double bang,” he said.

“People can come and do the Ice Castles and then the winter lights, or vice-versa. We are looking to bring people into Warren County.”

Last winter’s warm weather drastically curtailed the Ice Castles season here and at its other locations.

Even though the new Winter Experience attraction will also be outside, at the Fort William Henry, Mr. Merlino touts it as “weather proof.” Even in extreme cold or rain, “unless there’s a real blizzard, they can still do it,” he said.” — Cathy DeDe

Asked Treasurer Swan: How do you actually hand out $3-million?

Warren County Treasurer Mike Swan says the $3-million committed by the Warren County Board of Supervisors for the new “Winter Experience” is the largest Occupancy Tax disbursement ever — “by a lot, like 2.3 million dollars.”

The next highest is annual $300,000 Occupancy Tax support provided for the Cool Insuring Arena.

How will the $3-million be paid?

“We don’t have all that money on hand” at one time, Mr. Swan said. Cash on hand fluctuates as hotels, motels, inns and Airbnb or other short term rental properties submit bed tax payments on monthly, quarterly or annual schedules.

Disbursements to the Warren County Coalition are to be broken up over five months, Mr. Swan said, from July to November of this year.

The first payment, to be dispersed at the end of this month, is for $588,000, Mr. Swan said. The Coalition must submit an invoice to receive the funds.

However, “before anything,” Mr. Swan said, the Coalition still has to provide proof of its 501-c-3 non-profit status.

The paperwork was still underway at the time the Board of Supervisors approved the $3 million Oc Tax grant.

Mr. Swan and Occupancy Tax Vice Chairman Gene Merlino confirmed separately that the $3 million contract with the Coalition is currently being finalized with County Attorney’s office. Once it is signed, it will be available as a public document, Mr. Swan said. — Cathy DeDe

‘Watchdog’ Travis Whitehead is for it

Self-described government “watchdog” Travis Whitehead of Queensbury gives a rare thumbs-up to the county spending $3-million of occupancy tax money on this new Winter Experience.

He tells The Chronicle:

At the special meeting I stated that increasing the winter tourist draw was in everyone’s interest.

My concern was the size of the award, 60 times the size of the typical $50,000 maximum and that the Board was being asked to decide with great rapidity (a special meeting called only two weeks before the scheduled BOS meeting).

I reflected on how in the past some very bad decisions were made with the excuse of a short time to study ( Siemens, Westmount) and expressed my concern.

I met with two members of the Coalition on Monday. I found the members to be sincere and open about the risks vs rewards and also got a verbal commitment that the concerns voiced by Supervisor (Jack) Diamond were understood and that every effort would be made to make the Fund whole, irregardless of how long that took.

In the end, I felt the potential rewards outweighed the risks but is in no way a guaranteed outcome.

Sometimes this is the best you can do and this is one of those times.

— Travis Whitehead, Queensbury

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