Jim Guild recalls the first time Watkins Glen International hosted a NASCAR race.
Like many business owners, Guild, who owns Famous Brands, 412 N. Franklin St. in Watkins Glen, looks forward to race weekend every year, as thousands of fans flood the region and spend money while they are in town.
This year, that cash injection will be gone, as NASCAR decided to move the Go Bowling at The Glen event, scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 13 to 16, to the Daytona International Speedway road course in Florida.
The change was made due to COVID-19-related health regulations, NASCAR officials said.
The effect of that loss will go beyond what people might have spent during the actual race weekend itself, Guild said.
“The economic impact is huge. It’s a heck of an advertisement to have that race here,” he said. “The first year they had it in 1986, I talked to a guy who before the race didn’t even know what the Finger Lakes was. But he was up here (visiting) on the Tuesday after the race.”
A financial wellspring dries up
The annual NASCAR race weekend typically attracts up to 100,000 people to Watkins Glen in August.
It’s the biggest event of the year at Watkins Glen International and one of the major events in New York state.
The NASCAR weekend also generates an estimated $50 million in revenue for the region, according to Schuyler County Administrator Timothy O’Hearn.
The loss of such a big attraction will also have a direct impact on the county’s finances, O’Hearn said.
“The loss of NASCAR plus the loss of state aid plus a drop in tourism, it’s been a perfect storm for us,” he said. “It’s impossible to replace the loss of NASCAR. It could result in 20% of our revenue, as much as $2 million, in direct sales tax loss. We’re most dependent on tourism and its impact on our economy.”
It isn’t just Schuyler County and Watkins Glen that will feel the pinch.
The City of Corning also relies on tourism as a major driver of its economy, thanks to attractions such as the Corning Museum of Glass and Rockwell Museum.
NASCAR weekend is a big contributor to that mix, and without it, merchants will lose out on a lot of potential business, said Coleen Fabrizi, executive director of Corning’s Gaffer District.
“Our hotels are among the hotels that sell out for NASCAR weekend,” Fabrizi said. “Many (fans) have fallen in love with our downtown. They take time to shop and dine locally.”
NASCAR provided economic benefits to multiple surrounding counties, as thousands of fans book hotel rooms, dine at restaurants and shop at businesses within a 50-mile radius of Watkins Glen Racetrack.
“NASCAR weekend traditionally generates a hotbed of activity here locally in Chemung County, with tremendous economic impact in the hospitality industry as well as through activity at the Elmira Corning Regional Airport, local restaurants, retailers, and other service industries,” said Kamala Keeley, president of the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce.
“Watkins Glen is one of the most popular locations for NASCAR and the races are a sellout event, generating significant sales tax and room tax,” Keeley said.
“Although we understand moving the race to Daytona this year was a necessary decision given the current circumstances, it’s no doubt our entire region will be missing that annual boost to local economies.”
Finding another way
The loss of NASCAR and its accompanying revenue stream creates challenges, but not insurmountable obstacles, local officials said.
For example, The Gaffer District is focusing on hyper local promotions, Fabrizi said.
“We don’t have the number of tourists coming to town that we typically have. That’s not going to change,” she said.
“We really need to make sure our downtown is set up so people can feel safe when they come downtown to spend money. If people don’t feel safe, whether they are tourists or residents, they aren’t going to come. We have to take full advantage of good weather while we have it.”
Related: After coronavirus halt, Finger Lakes tourist attractions eager to get visitors back on the road
Another big tourist draw in the Finger Lakes Region is its network of wineries.
The loss of NASCAR’s huge draw will be a blow, but wineries are already adjusting to life under the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to evolve as conditions change, said Brittany Gibson, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
“Wineries have found a way to get creative about their tasting experiences and in many ways, it’s even better than it ever has been. Visitors are loving the low-key, relaxed atmosphere and the ability to sit and enjoy their wines,” Gibson said.
“Wineries have also added cheese and charcuterie boards, light snacks, and in some instances, more substantial food pairings to go with their tastings,” she said. “All of this actually offers an improved experience than the ‘old’ model. We will continue to take this approach going forward — positivity and flexibility.”
The key word is “re-imagining,” said Michael Hardy, president of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce, who started his new position in the middle of the pandemic.
“I hope to be one of the community leaders that try to help people re-imagine what can be done, and though it’s discouraging, I want to be optimistic,” he said.
“We’ve all been surprised with the number of people who have been coming from New York, Buffalo, Rochester. It’s not to the level (that NASCAR brings) but I know there will be a ripple effect. I’m still hopeful.”
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