Time to get real about impact of STRs on Wilmington economy

I am writing in response to guest commentaries by Linda Shuster and Bill Wonderlin published on Oct. 5 in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, and Oct. 6 in the Lake Placid News (“The economic benefits of STRs, revisited”), in which they have provided a response to my earlier analysis (published on Sep. 9 and Sep. 22 in the same publications).

Ms. Shuster’s and Mr. Wonderlin’s response is based on the premise that elimination of STRs in Wilmington would not have any meaningful impact on the town’s economy, since visitors to the area who would previously have stayed in STRs will simply switch to hotels/motels in Wilmington. They also believe that job loss caused by the elimination of approximately 140 STRs will be counterbalanced by increased employment by local hotels/motels.

Ms. Shuster’s and Mr. Wonderlin’s conclusions are based on 4-year-old national-level research conducted by a “left-leaning think tank based in Washington D.C.” This research is not relevant to, nor grounded in, the reality of our community of Wilmington. Instead of quoting irrelevant research, I prefer to look firsthand into the capacity of hotels/motels vs. STRs in Wilmington.

Wilmington has an estimated 140 STRs of different sizes ranging from studios to 6-bedroom homes. Assuming an average size of three bedrooms per home, STRs have an estimated capacity of 400-450 rooms. By comparison, the hotels/motels/campgrounds in Wilmington have a total of 142 rooms/suites. Assuming hotels, etc., are booked to 70-80% capacity during visitor season (though I understand many are sold out during popular times to visit), they would only have 30-40 rooms to spare collectively. Hotels and motels in Wilmington simply do not have the capacity to service the demand of folks who want to visit our great community.

The argument that visitor traffic will not be affected by ending or limiting STRs is ludicrous. Visitor traffic would be decimated — STR-based visitors to Wilmington would fall by 90% or more (based on 400-450 STR rooms being replaced by 30-40 spare hotel/motel rooms). Livelihoods of locals who depend on STRs would be destroyed and there would be mass unemployment and under-employment of these locals. Local businesses would suffer, and several may cease to exist.

Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin argue that the large number of locals who depend fully or partially on STRs for their income could simply go and work for hotels/motels. While this argument is a non-starter based on the facts I have presented above, the very notion that locals who are currently self-employed and making a living through STRs should simply become hotel employees is frankly insulting. While there is nothing wrong with working for a hotel, in what reality is working for someone else better than the autonomy and freedom afforded by working for oneself? It is also fair to assume that the locals who work for themselves supporting STRs make a better livelihood and enjoy a better quality of life by working in the STR field rather than a hotel or motel; if the local hotels and motels could provide a better employment situation for these locals, then they would have taken jobs with the hotels and motels that Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin suggest were around in spades before STRs came along.

Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin assume that ceasing STRs would transform the 140 STRs into long term residences which would require the same level of cleaning and maintenance. This too is a flawed assumption. The reality is that most of these homes would be purchased as second homes by out-of-towners who may use them for a few weeks a year. The homes would remain largely unoccupied, requiring minimal cleaning and maintenance. In what reality is having many unoccupied homes which would generate minimal employment, minimal revenue for local businesses, and contribute no bed-tax, a good idea for Wilmington?

Finally, Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin brand STRs as “party” homes and highlight nuisance issues, citing the recent ban by Airbnb and VRBO on parties. This is an attempt to paint STRs negatively with a broad brush and is again removed from reality. Based on my experience as an STR owner, the overwhelming majority of STR renters are families who wish to vacation together. STR owners (and guests for that matter) are not evil people who do not care about their neighbors or the town. STR owners have their life savings invested in these homes and do not want to antagonize their neighbors or risk damage by making their homes “party homes,” which is why most STR owners welcome this ban. Airbnb and VRBO both employ review systems which permit renters to rate owners and owners to rate renters. Most STR owners, including us, do not rent to renters who have garnered complaints from prior owners. And many of our guests have become friends, booking the same week and bringing the same family members year after year.

Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin make the alarming claim that it is too late for them on Hardy Road and that they are “surrounded by three potential party houses.” Hardy Road is beautiful and peaceful with most homes set on significant acreage, meaning the homes are situated a good distance from one another. The STRs on Hardy Road have been around for years — if Ms. Shuster and Mr. Wonderlin were indeed surrounded by constant partying, they would not use the word “potential” in reference to party homes. The reality is most guests rent vacation homes because they’re looking to get away and enjoy the stunning nature that we are all blessed to enjoy every day.

While certain voices and interest groups are intent on shutting down STRs, the reality is that STRs are critical to the hospitality-based economy of Wilmington. Shutting down or restricting STRs without thinking of the destruction this would wreak on the livelihoods of locals and small businesses is deeply flawed.

STRs have changed the way America vacations — they enable extended families and friends to travel and stay together in a home. STR owners and property managers provide a valuable service to Wilmington’s visitors, who in turn benefit our community overall.

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(Aseem Mathur is a short-term vacation rental owner in Wilmington.)

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