Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The Republican-led legislative supermajority pushed through a one-year extension of Niagara County’s funding contract with Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation on Tuesday.
Simultaneously, despite the urging of seven area tourism/hospitality business operators who testified to excellent service by NTCC and its C.E.O., John Percy, Republican caucus members rejected a proposed 10-year contract with the county’s official tourism promotion agency.
The votes fell 11-to-3 and 3-to-11 respectively, with Democratic legislators casting the votes favoring a long-term commitment to NTCC now.
“We’re jeopardizing economic development in this county by doing this one-year contract,” Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, argued.
Businesspeople who’ve had good experiences with the agency also encouraged a long-term commitment to it. The contract is the means by which the county is authorized to turn over a majority share of local bed tax collections to the agency for spending on countywide promotion/marketing efforts.
NTCC gets credit for Lockport Locks & Erie Canal Cruises’ recent rave review on Tripadvisor.com, and its continuously increasing annual ticket sales to out-of-state and foreign visitors, operator Mike Murphy asserted. The agency’s frequently embattled C.E.O., John Percy, whose prior experience is in Niagara Falls hotel management, is “among the best in the business,” Murphy added.
John Kinney, owner-operator of the Whirlpool Jet Tours in Lewiston, Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls, Ontario, says the Lewiston site is generating 50 percent of the company’s revenue today, up from only 3 percent when the site first opened in the late 1990s.
“That didn’t happen by chance, it happened because people like John ... sold Niagara County when there wasn’t much to sell. We have come so far, so fast,” he said.
Melinda Vizcarra, owner-operator of Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards winery in Gasport, said when she launched her retail farm operation 25 years ago, “in the woods,” promoting it was costly and challenging. NTCC’s inclusion of “agritourist” attractions, and the Niagara Wine Trail, in its promotions helped put Becker Farms and many other small businesses on the tourist map, so to speak, she said.
Schulze Winery operator Ann Schulze agreed, giving credit for the ever-increasing numbers of out-of-state and foreign customers her business has to NTCC.
“It made this (Niagara County/Niagara USA) a destination. ... It would be foolish to change what we’ve got going here,” Vizcarra said.
Kinney reminded the legislators that when the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau was being dissolved in the early 2000s, ahead of its merger into the new NTCC, tourism operators and promoters had much “uncertainty” whether Niagara Falls was a viable market. A one-year-only extension for NTCC will create just as much uncertainly, he said, as promotional campaigns, convention bookings and the like are planned years in advance.
“Let’s not do that. Let’s give these extremely competent professionals the (contract) they need to keep working,” Kinney said.
Galib Rizek, proprietor of the Econolodge motel on Niagara Falls Boulevard and vice president of the NTCC Board of Directors, claimed the cloud of uncertainty over NTCC’s future is causing his family to rethink its plans to invest $7 million in new hotel construction.
“It is disappointing that political crossfire is affecting an organization that was created ... to expand prosperity” across the county, Rizek said.
Legislative Majority Caucus Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, denied “politics” is driving the majority’s resistance to the long-term agreement pitched by NTCC.
Instead, he said, questions about “transparency” and “accountability” have been raised repeatedly by representatives of the agency’s two biggest funders, the cities of Lockport and Niagara Falls, and it’s the legislature’s duty to get the issues worked out before granting NTCC another long-term funding deal.
“Nobody wants NTCC gone,” Updegrove said, suggesting the one-year extender is proof, in that without it the agency can’t receive funding to stay in business in 2013-14.
A new long-term contract is “being negotiated,” he added. “We want to make sure all of our stakeholders are content.”
Mayor Michael Tucker, a consistent NTCC critic, was allowed to address the legislature after the time period set aside for public comments on pending legislature business. Tucker endorsed the one-year contract extension as buying “time” for Lockport to pursue provisions in a long-term agreement that better protect its interests as a funder.
Among his and some local attraction operators’ complaints about the agency after 10 years, Tucker said: “There’s very little communication” between officials, operators and Percy; without explanation several years ago, it failed to promote Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride on the Niagara USA website for a full year; and it’s withdrawing financial subsidy of the Tour Lockport Trolley after this year.
Tucker says Percy told him the agency can’t defend funding it when other communities are clamoring for support for trolleys too.
“Too much heat from Lewiston and Youngstown is an excuse. They’re not shareholders,” he told the US&J after the legislature meeting.
The city imposes and collects a 4 percent tax on hotel-motel room rentals, and gives 75 percent to NTCC. In recent years that’s added up to an annual payment of about $90,000.
In his comments to legislators, Tucker admitted NTCC can do more for Lockport with that money than the city could do itself. “The issue isn’t (Percy), it’s what is and isn’t being done to make this work for all of us,” he said. “We need to get these things right for my city.”
In response to legislators who challenged NTCC reps to address stakeholders’ complaints in long-term contract negotiations, Percy said, “We’ll start first thing tomorrow on getting the contract done. We will get any problems that are perceived to be there cleared up.”
Percy conceded he’s been “remiss” in communicating frequently with NTCC stakeholders and promised a renewed effort to speak with them all, starting with 15 county legislators. He’s requested meetings with all of them and has managed to get in-person or telephone meetings with seven, he said Tuesday. None were Updegrove, Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, or Bill Ross, C-Wheatfield, who together co-sponsored the 1-year extender resolution.
The resolution claims a general need for the legislature to “evaluate the performance of the NTCC” including its contracts with vendors, employee pay and reimbursement practices and its revenue streams for the sake of “transparency.”