St. Lawrence Chamber briefs legislature on COVID response

St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at 101 Main St., Canton. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

CANTON — A cornerstone of local economic development, the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce is entering the second quarter of 2021 having learned from and adapted to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During its annual presentation to the county Board of Legislators, at the top of the board’s Services Committee meeting Monday night, the chamber briefed lawmakers on organizational changes, 2020 tourism data and outdoor exploration initiatives launching this year.

Reflective of canceled in-person programming, the chamber cut two event staff positions, while Assistant Director Michael V. Besaw resigned for a new opportunity. Personnel dipped from six people to three, but a new tourism director position was created, dividing marketing and programming responsibilities across both business and tourism sectors.

Former Executive Director Brooke E. Rouse is now tourism director, and the chamber named Benjamin R. Dixon as executive director in January. They are joined by two office staff — an insurance agent, who also coordinates membership, and an office manager.

The chamber is considered a partner agency of the county and is partially funded through the administrator’s portion of the annual budget. The county earmarked $202,130 in chamber funding for 2021. State and federal grant programs also supplement the organization.

“COVID has obviously had a major impact on businesses across the county, and the chamber is no exception,” Mr. Dixon told legislators. “We had to make some difficult choices in order to remain viable and be able to deliver the critical services that the county businesses needed, probably more than ever.”

Chamber efforts to support its members, especially at the outset of the health crisis last spring, focused on parsing public health guidelines related to reopening, testing and vaccination, sharing relief funding information and distributing sanitizing supplies and masks.

Creative shifts — to e-commerce, social media marketing, virtual gatherings, outdoor events and increased local purchasing promotion — became crucial, Mr. Dixon said.

Even as the pandemic begins to subside and surviving businesses rebound, Mr. Dixon said he hopes members “will continue to adopt new approaches to doing business.”

Prior to the pandemic, the chamber’s membership stood at 412 businesses and organizations. Though 90 members dropped their affiliation in 2020, a total of 37 new members have joined, including some rejoining members. The net loss of 33 members brings the total roster to 379 as of this week.

For county tourism, the pandemic painted a dramatic picture from 2020’s first to second quarters, according to area lodging data shared by Mrs. Rouse.

In 2019, lodging brought $511,412 to the county in occupancy tax collection, a roughly 9% increase from 2018. From Dec. 1, 2019, to Feb. 28, 2020, the tax accounted for a $78,982 boost for the county economy, a first-quarter figure “higher than ever,” Mrs. Rouse said. Initial shutdowns then prompted “a huge dive,” she added.

The 2020 second quarter saw $47,481, down from $115,646 in 2019. The total $389,439 recorded in 2020 reflects a near 24% decrease from 2019.

“Although lodging was down, outdoor recreation was up,” Mrs. Rouse said, noting local outdoor exploration was likely “a mental health assist.”

The recreation increase was tracked in part by monitoring online traffic on the St. Lawrence County Trails website. In-state travel and day tripping helped bring visitors from Watertown, Syracuse, Albany, Saratoga Springs and Rochester, she said, citing the trail website’s traffic.

With summer approaching, Mrs. Rouse said the chamber is anticipating older adults, now vaccinated against COVID-19, traveling more; continued popularity for outdoor activities and day trips; and increased popularity for self-guided tours and small-group tourism.

Since last year, the chamber has developed a waterfall guide, integrated town and village information on its website and started a new community-led blog. The Great 8 Challenges, a three-challenge series featuring eight riverside trails, eight nature hikes and eight waterfalls, is launching in May. People who complete a challenge can earn a badge, similar to already established outdoor recreation badge initiatives.

The chamber maintains a few different websites, with as a starting point. The STLC Trails website hosts trip planning information related to hiking, biking, paddling and winter activities. STLC Fishing is the spot for amateur and professional anglers.

The chamber can be reached by calling 315-386-4000 or emailing

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