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CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU BUOYED AS BOOKINGS RUN ABOVE NORMAL

Mix a record number of convention bookings to projections for a new casino and you get what this city hopes is the recipe for a tourism turn-around.

Thirty-three conventions have already been booked this year, compared with 39 in all of last year, according to statistics from the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. The bureau projects the conventions, scheduled for 2001 to 2005, will reap nearly $13 million for local businesses.

"We're having a really great year as far as bookings are concerned," said Joe Holody, vice president of sales for the bureau. "I anticipate that in the next few weeks we'll be able to bring in another $1.5 to $2 million."

Though he doubts the bureau will be able to continue its momentum for the rest of the year, he said he hopes the city will be able to reach $20 million in projected revenue.

Last year, the bureau booked 39 conventions expected to bring in about $18 million for the city. In 1999, 49 conventions were booked with an estimated revenue of $11 million.

Officials say this year's record bookings is, at least, positive news.

"The trend is there," Holody said. "We're all working together to find a common objective, which is to bring money into Niagara Falls."

Holody said the bureau's staff began a new marketing campaign this year that included four "phone blitzes" at Niagara University. Each blitz targeted different markets, including religious, military and fraternal organizations. Bureau staff members also attended trade shows in major cities, including New York, Chicago and Washington D.C., to solicit business for the Falls.

"Niagara Falls itself has brand name recognition," Holody said. "We have been aggressively pursuing these clients."

Some clients, including the Philadelphia Church of God, booked multiyear conventions. Many other groups, who have already visited the Falls, are booking for return conventions.

"That means we're doing our job as a hospitality industry," Holody said.

While some of the smaller conventions will use the facilities at various hotels in the Niagara region, most will utilize the Niagara Falls Convention & Civic Center, which according to a 1999 report by the city's Engineering Department, is in need of $35 million in repairs. "There are some problems that are being looked at right now," said John Oliver, marketing director for the center. "They won't necessarily hurt our ability to hold a convention now, but we want to be sure it won't in the future."

Since 1975, the Convention Center has been plagued by a leaky roof and relatively high labor costs. But Gov. George E. Pataki's announcement Wednesday of his support for a new casino in the Falls may lead to a revitalization of the center.

The city still needs to do more to help Niagara Falls tourism out of its "financial crunch," said local hotelier John Prozeralik, who owns the Day's Inn Riverview on Buffalo Avenue and John's Flaming Hearth restaurant in the Town of Niagara.

"Our Convention Center hasn't really met its potential," he said. "Niagara Falls hasn't met its potential."

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