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Things Are Getting Better In Chautauqua

A childhood friend owns a gift shop and up until last week she has been opening her door for limited hours only.

My heart breaks for her whenever I drive by. All the pretty things in the windows look like orphans in a dark house. We’re not buying candles and gifts for friends. We’re having pancake mix and face masks delivered by Amazon.

But things are getting better out there in the land of Chautauqua. There are boats on the water and chicken wings flying out the door and there are families catching minnows in the creeks and restaurants putting their specials to chalkboard for the first time in a long time.

I asked Andrew Nixon from the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, who’s become a reliable informant over the years, if he matched my optimism. I wanted to know if he noticed more boats on the lake and families picking strawberries at Abers Acres and if he thought we’d have a rebound after Phase Four begins.

And I thought he sounded pretty confident, although cautious, about the State Of The Lake, as I’ve been calling it.

“Businesses are rising to the challenges that the virus response poses and many are enjoying the return of a portion of their typical customer level,” he told me. “However, 2020 will be a rebuilding year in terms of customer levels.”

It all sounds great until you hear the word “portion” and “rebuilding.” Still, there’s reason to be happy.

Then I was thinking how in 2012, during the recession, there were so few boats on the lake. No one could afford the gas. But this summer? In the summer of Corona? From my lawn chair perch, it seems like a busy lake. Boating offers a much-needed escape from the house, an opportunity for wind-blown hair, a sensation other than the tapping of the remote control and heat from the waffle iron.

“As with all outdoor recreation activities, lake related options are extremely popular. That includes power boating, paddle sports, fishing, or just hanging out and dining in lakefront areas,” Nixon said. “Marinas and places that rent or sell boats have been very busy. Chautauqua County is seen as a comparatively safe and easy to reach destination and is enjoying visitors from traditionally strong market areas such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western/central New York state.”

And the good news is that folks are loving the great outdoors this summer. People who haven’t been to the gorge since 9th grade are making the trip to Mayville with the kids in back for a day of swimming and rock skipping.

And Nixon said that yes, that’s the big trend right now. There is strong interest in outdoor recreation ranging from golf to fishing and boating, to use of trails and scenic outdoor areas.

“Though this is always the case,” he said, “there is a heightened awareness and prominence of outdoor experiences currently.”

And how about Phase 4? Will life here feel closer to normal in the coming weeks?

“We expect to see local as well as visiting customers returning to area cultural attractions,” Nixon said. “The level of business though will be commensurate with the maximum capacity stipulations required by the state, as well as consumer comfort in the safety measures employed by the specific attractions. All historic/museum type attractions for example, are publicizing specific safety plans for their customers to review. This helps to reassure guests.”

Another thing I’ve noticed is the lack of houses for sale. If you’re in the market for a lake house, the pickings are slim, which is great news for sellers. My theory is that tourism is driving that market to a large degree. People have their friends from Buffalo for a weekend and the next thing you know, they’re looking for a cottage here. I’ve seen it happen myself.

Nixon thought tourism plays a part, although it didn’t sound like my theory would make The Wall Street Journal anytime soon.

“A lot of people may be looking for a reliable and relatively safe destination that they can return to frequently, as opposed to major trips to destinations they are less familiar with or are harder to get to,” he said. “As vacation home in an area as recreationally diverse as Chautauqua County fits that bill perfectly.”

My questions turned back to businesses-the faction of the county that has suffered greatly through the shutdown. Nixon is in touch with quite a few venues throughout the day, and I wondered how he sized up owner’s state of mind.

“The challenges associated with the pandemic response have been extremely challenging for our tourism and related businesses,” he said. “Now that businesses have made it through the most dire times of late March through early May, they are focused on carefully hosting customers again. I think one of the things that is helping businesses the most is their long-term relationships with guests who have been to the region before and are comfortable in returning. We have a good reputation in our primary market areas, and so do the businesses and attractions in our area.”

I wanted to ask him about bringing a Target to the old K-Mart store on Fairmount, knowing that has nothing at all to do with his position at the bureau. And the reason I was going to ask is because I’m thinking if we whine long enough to anyone who will listen, we might just make it clear that we’d be thrilled.

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