Before the summer tourist season even begins, out-of-towners have flooded into the northern Adirondacks.
Plattsburgh’s eight largest hotels have put out “no vacancy” signs at times.
A gym owner put up cots in his facility in Dannemora.
The state college at Plattsburgh offered vacant student rooms, as did a private student housing company.
The guests filling hotels and keeping restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations busy are not tourists; they are the hundreds of searchers, reporters and photographers who have flocked to the area during the three-week search for escaped killers Richard Matt and David Sweat.
“With so many law enforcement and media people in the area, hotels and motels are completely full,” said Susan Matton, vice president of economic development for the North Country Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburgh. “Restaurants are busy, and local convenience stores and gas stations are hopping.”
Local residents and businesses that are benefiting from the demand would prefer to have it end soon with a peaceful recapture of the men.
“This has created … demand that otherwise would not have been there,” Matton. “Now, we certainly would rather not have that demand – we would rather have the fugitives caught.”
The search area is concentrated in northern Clinton County and eastern Franklin County, around Titus Mountain, 60 miles west of Plattsburgh. The prison is 25 miles west of Plattsburgh.
The latest search area “is just outside the Adirondack Park, some of it would be on the very fringes of it,” Matton said. “The prison is about 3 miles inside the park.”
Local residents have been inconvenienced by some of the intense searches, which are usually short-lived. A four-mile strip of Route 374 was closed for three days, affecting a convenience store and a used-car lot, Matton said.
But the searches and those documenting the manhunt have filled hotels in Plattsburgh and the surrounding area for weeks.
More than 1,000 state, local and federal officers are in the area, although the numbers have fluctuated as tips are pursued in other parts of the state.
Local businesses and restaurants have stepped up to help feed and house the searchers, who traveled from other parts of the state.
Immediately after the escape, a gym owner in Dannemora got clearance to set up cots and temporarily house searchers, said Kristy Kennedy, vice president for marketing of the North Country Chamber.
As days went by, SUNY Plattsburgh made dormitory space available and a privately owned student housing complex provided rooms for some law enforcement officers, she said.
“As horrible as the story is, you have seen the community come out as well, which is really interesting,” Kennedy said. “They are making sure that if somebody needs a place to sleep, we are accommodating that, or a place to charge a cellphone so they can reach out to their family members. You’ve heard a lot of those stories too.”
“These are alternative options that are being used, not just our hotels and motels,” she said.
Plattsburgh has eight hotel chains, most offering 90 to 100 rooms.
A local official contacted the chamber Wednesday, trying to find a hotel room for an engineer flying in to work at the Plattsburgh International Airport.
“He was struggling to find a room for him, based on the fact that we have a lot of law enforcement that are occupying the hotels right now, as well as media,” said Kennedy. Finally, one vacant room was located and held for the engineer.
“We’re usually booked at the 90 percent occupancy rate at this time of year,” Kennedy said. “But never to where we are calling around and looking for a hotel room.”
Tourism officials, like everyone else, are taking the situation day by day, hoping that both escapees will be caught soon and without incident.
Otherwise, the manhunt could affect the height of the summer tourism season.
“There is some concern that, if this drags on, camps and camping grounds in the immediate area of intense search will be affected,” Matton said.
“We are just coming into the tourist season now that school is out. Everyone hopes the fugitives will be apprehended soon so life can return to normal,” she said.
National news reports that the escapees were in the Adirondacks might have caused some would-be visitors to wonder if vacations to such summer getaways as Lake George or Lake Placid might be affected.
But the 75-square mile search area is small compared to the entire state park, which is bigger than Yellowstone, the Everglades, the Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks combined.
“When you say Adirondacks, it’s a huge area,” Matton said. “The main core of the Adirondacks, that Lake Placid, Hamilton County, Essex County area, is not at all affected by this.”
The Adirondack Regional Chamber of Commerce has received a few phone calls asking about the search, said Peter Aust, president and CEO.
“We’ve had a couple of people contact us, asking, ‘Is the manhunt in your area and should I be concerned about anything?’ ” said Aust.
A glance at a map would show that the answer is no.
“We’re a good 120 miles south by car,” said Aust in Glens Falls, “at least two hours travel ... of where they are concentrating their search.
“So we’re not seeing here any direct impact on tourism, no people not coming to the area because of concerns or fears that they might be in the area where these escaped convicts are,” Aust said.
Aust said he had heard that one fifth-grade trip to a campground at Willsboro, some 30 miles south of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain, was called off while investigators looked into a sighting of the men in the area.
“That trip was canceled and the campground lost the revenue and unfortunately the 45 or so kids that were planning on this trip were not able to go,” he said.
However, Kennedy said, local campgrounds “are fully open and very safe.
“We’ve had a few phone calls from people wanting to ask if they can get to the place they are going, but nobody has called and said, ‘I’m not coming.’ We have not gotten those phone calls.”