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FORCING PROGRESS IN NIAGARA

Among the many hopeful winds that seem to be sweeping across Niagara Falls this year is one, potentially of hurricane force, that could finally blow away what surely must be the most chaotic tourism operation among the world's top-flight destinations.

The problem is that Niagara County doesn't have a tourist operation. It has two. The Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau operates out of the city, while over in Lockport, the Niagara County Department of Tourism runs its own show. The two agencies claim to take different approaches -- one dealing with business and conventions, the other with individual tourists -- but the truth is that they are duplicative, confusing and grossly inefficient.

That point was driven home in a study funded by Niagara University at the behest of State Sen. George Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda. Conducted by tourism consultant Joseph Lathrop of Orlando, Fla., the report not only makes clear the extent to which the two tourism agencies fall short -- getting in each other's way while failing to gather crucial demographic information -- but lays out a path to rapid improvement.

The proposal, endorsed in its concept by Maziarz and Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls, would create a new, independent tourism agency to replace the existing ones. Its job would be to promote the entire county based on research that identifies the interest of people who come to the region.

Little in Niagara County's public institutions is not dysfunctional, so there would be little reason to believe this report could lead to substantive change, but for one significant fact: money. The state could deprive Niagara Falls of its bed tax revenue and it could redirect its I Love New York funding to the new agency, rather than sending it to the county tourism department. Maziarz says he's ready to use that hammer, if that's what it takes. So does DelMonte, though both representatives hold out hope for agreement short of bringing it down.

Much more needs doing besides straightening out the county's tangled tourism operations, though. First and foremost, the area needs to provide tourists something to do after they see the falls, a fact Lathrop noted in his report. You have to have something to market, and with all that Niagara Falls, Ont., provides to lure tourists, the falls is not enough.

That development work is also under way with Gov. George E. Pataki's proposal to put a gambling casino in downtown Niagara Falls, as well as the USA Niagara Development Corp. he created to reinvigorate the city.

The plan to create a single tourism agency is gathering support within the county. Both the existing agencies and the chairman of the County Legislature have endorsed the idea of a single entity, though the county tourism office is nervous about several details. If that trend continues, the new operation could be launched by July.

Maziarz deserves a lot of credit for engineering this independent study. Efficient tourism promotion is an urgent piece of business in a county that has squandered too many of its gifts. It should move ahead as quickly as it can. But just in case it doesn't, the senator should keep his hammer handy.

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