Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 10, 2013

Heritage District and tax, mulled

By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The blue-ribbon committee overseeing Flight of Five canal locks restoration has proposed creation of a business improvement taxing district to support locks operations and maintenance.

The Lockport Locks Heritage District Committee gave a proposal to the Common Council last week for creating an entity to manage publicly owned attractions and amenities along or near the Erie Canal in the city.

According to the proposal, the Locks Heritage District Corporation could be established to manage the district and improvements including the restored locks, the proposed Lockport Harbor Marine Center and signs and interpretive exhibits throughout, such as the planned gateway entrances and exhibits on Canal Street.

The corporation could apply for grants, seek donations and, if the Council approved creation of a special district, levy a tax on properties within the Locks Heritage District, to support non-income-generating items such as the locks and signage.

The corporation could also raise money for LHD maintenance if it’s given rights to license attractions and concessions throughout the district, and collect vendor fees from special events and the Labatt Canal Concert Series, the proposal shows.

The Locks Heritage District would consist roughly of one to three city blocks northwest and southeast of the canal throughout the city. It would include all of the downtown business district, and commercial, industrial and residential properties in closest proximity to the canal.

Lockport has never had a business improvement district, City Attorney John Ottaviano said. The idea was batted around briefly with reconstruction of Main Street in 2005, as leaders contemplated how to pay for maintenance of new landscaping and streetscaping. In the end, the costs have been absorbed in the city’s general fund, into which all city property owners pay.

The LHD proposal comes about as the city is entering into an agreement with the state Canal Corporation to have old Locks 69 and 70 restored to working condition. The city will be responsible for operation and maintenance costs, which the Heritage District Committee estimated will be $100,000 a year. 

That is the amount of “special district assessment” in LHDC’s proposed budget, basically meaning the proposal is for downtown business/property owners to shoulder the Flight of Five operating tab.

That’s not an unreasonable thought, Mayor Michael Tucker suggested. Businesses in the Locks Heritage District are poised to benefit from the increased tourism that’s expected with Flight operation, “more than other taxpayers, certainly.

“But with that said, I know it’s tough out there for business,” he said. A special district tax “is an alternative. It’s my least favorite alternative, but it’s not the only alternative.”

Also under consideration, according to Tucker: O&M expenses could be written into the city’s general fund budget — and all property taxpayers hit up to help support Flight operations.

Or the city could increase its bed tax rate and earmark a portion of collections for the Locks Heritage District. Bed tax is 4 percent currently and it’s paid by people who rent rooms at hotels, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments in the city.

Tax financing of some sort appears to be the only way to support Flight operation, Tucker acknowledged.

There are no grants out there for O&M, and it’s not feasible to charge admission for a look at the locks.

The Council will have to identify Flight O&M funding source(s) fairly soon. The Canal Corporation is putting restoration work out to bid in April with the aim of seeing construction started in June. Two locks should be fully restored and ready to operate by the end of 2014, according to heritage district committee chairman David Kinyon.

The committee’s sample budget for the Locks Heritage District Corporation shows expenses of $539,000 a year to maintain and promote public facilities including Lockport Harbor Marine Center, which the committee is pursuing grant funding to have built off West Genesee Street. 

The transient marina would be self-supporting from fees and sales; the projected O&M estimate is $125,000 a year.

The budget further shows expense and income lines for the Labatt Canal Concert Series. The idea is that the district would pay for weekly stage rentals and cover the expense by charging fees to concert vendors.

Presently the city is footing the $80,000 a year bill from the property tax-fed general fund.

Other income for the district would come from grants and donations, licensing fees charged to attraction operators and vendors, and special event fees, according to the budget. Basically the corporation would take charge of organizing events, tours and other public activities within the district and look to make some money off them.