The city has hired its first employee to support the tourism industry since the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. became the sole marketing entity for the city and county two years ago.
Kevin J. Ormsby won't start the job as city tourism development manager for about two weeks, but he's already on the hot seat.
Although he has worked for two decades in tourism promotion for Niagara County, some wonder whether political connections landed Ormsby the $42,000-a-year job, which also comes with about $12,000 in benefits. He is currently an aide in the Niagara Falls office of Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Lewiston.
Others wonder whether a city that has talked of closing its library and has other financial worries needed to make such a hire in the first place.
And then there are those who are unclear about what Ormsby is expected to accomplish.
The way Joseph Lathrop sees it, however, the new post holds promise.
Lathrop was the state-hired consultant from Orlando, Fla., who recommended replacing the city's Conference and Visitor's Bureau and county tourism department with the Tourism and Conference Corp. in 2002.
"The important thing about tourism and promotion and development is that it needs to be integrated," Lathrop said last week in a telephone interview with The Buffalo News. "If this is another partner joining the effort, that's great.
"It says, 'We're interested in tourism, and that's a positive thing.' "
On the other hand, Lathrop said, it's important the position not duplicate what the Tourism and Convention Corp. already does -- mainly advertising -- but rather serve a supplemental role.
"The Falls is a tourism-based economy, whether some people like it or not," Lathrop said. "What the Falls needs is more product."
At this point, questions about Ormsby's duties are plentiful. Christopher Glynn, president of the Maid of the Mist, counts himself among the confused.
While Mayor Vince Anello claims there is a need for an additional staff person to be the city's liaison with downtown business owners, Glynn said he thought there was a greater need to first attract businesses to the area.
"There are so few successful businesses downtown I don't know who he is going to liaison with," said Glynn, who was the first chairman of the agency. "The marketability of downtown Niagara Falls is certainly a challenge."
Glynn said that's the vicious cycle the city has been trying to get out of for years. It wants to attract developers, he said, but developers want to see traffic first.
One solution would be to focus on getting more events in the area that create traffic, Glynn said. He also said he would support the formation of a business improvement district downtown to raise money to keep up the appearance of trees, lampposts, walkways and other features and would be pleased if the new tourism director helped make those things happen.
Anello said those are both goals he wants the new tourism director to achieve.
The mayor also said that when the city has someone on staff to focus on those issues, it will show that tourism is a priority.
The job description for the new position includes the following responsibilities:
Act as the city's official liaison to the Tourism and Convention Corp., overseeing the expenditure of the city's nearly $2 million contribution in bed tax and casino revenue.
Act as the city's official liaison to Conference Center Niagara Falls, to which the city will contribute $1 million of casino revenues annually.
Work with the city's grant writer to pursue tourism-related grants.
Write news releases, participate in development planning and act as ambassador of the city to relevant private and public tourism groups.
Council members Glenn C. Choolokian and Candra Thomason are also voting members of the Niagara Falls Urban Renewal Agency, which will fund the new position. They say the post uses up almost half of that agency's approximately $120,000 budget.
That agency gets its money from nonrenewable sources, such as the sale of city properties.
Anello said Ormsby will not have a budget to spend.
Still, Choolokian said he still thinks it's a waste of money. He said the responsibilities could be handled by existing employees who already complete many of those tasks.
Thomason, who voted along with Choolokian against funding the position last month, agrees.
"We need to learn to work better as a Council and administration with the entities that we have already, not to create new positions to cover bases that don't exist," she said.
Thomason went one step further. The lone Republican on the five-member Council called the newly created post a patronage job.
"The job position was created by Anello and the administration, and it's a job that was never there before," Thomason said. "It's not something we've used before."
Ormsby said he believes his hire was legitimate. He has 20 years of experience working in a civil service position with the county's Department of Tourism. He said he worked under both Republican and Democratic tourism directors.
Ormsby has worked for DelMonte since June 2003.
Councilman Lewis "Babe" Rotella, who voted for the position, said he looks forward to having someone keep the agency accountable for the city bed taxes and local share of casino revenue it receives, which makes up the large majority of its budget.
"I am looking for information he brings back to us about what the NTCC and the Conference Center is doing," Rotella said. "Really, we don't have anybody that brings us this type of information. He can break this all down for us."
The Tourism and Convention Corp. puts out financial and quarterly statements to city leaders in Lockport and Niagara Falls, as well as to the County Legislature, corporation President David Rosenwasser said.
"We are ready and would provide every Council member the same financial statements we provide to the mayor and to the comptroller," he said. "There is no shortage of information."
In its first year of operation, the tourism marketing agency leveraged about $1 million in advertising into about $58 million in tourist spending here, according to a Niagara University survey of 2004 tourist spending.
Rotella said it will be helpful to have someone with tourism experience explain that information to the Council.
Rosenwasser said he, too, expects the new role will be beneficial.
The tourism development manager position must be renewed each year by approval of the Urban Renewal Agency.