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MERGING NIAGARA'S TOURISM AGENCIES

It was supposed to be a new day in Niagara County, but someone forget to tell the tourism department.

The state is planning to spend millions to improve the Niagara Reservation. It created USA Niagara Development Corp. in an effort to rejuvenate Niagara Falls' withered economy. It proposed to allow construction of a casino in the downtown area.

Locally, the county's two chambers of commerce agreed to merge. The Legislature approved an important and hopeful new county charter, forwarding it to voters who will decide the issue next month. And just last month, an independent study recommended creation of a new independent tourism agency to replace the two inefficient and duplicative operations that now exist: The Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau in Niagara Falls and the Niagara County Department of Tourism.

It's the right way to go. A new agency could start fresh, avoid the political influence that has harmed current programs and earn the confidence of the tourism industry. The plan has earned the support of Democratic Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte and Republican Sen. George Maziarz, who requested the study. The city tourism agency has backed the plan, but the county is digging in its heels. Sure, it says, let's have one county agency, just so long as we control it.

Mallet, please.

The county's plan is to produce an agency where it names half the board, with the rest to be named by the cities, towns and Niagara University. But the plan is dead on arrival. The city agency backs a new, independent operation, but it's unlikely in the extreme to have anything to do with a county takeover. Such is the poison politics of Niagara County.

Indeed, in making this counterproposal, the county department simply underscores the need for a change. It either doesn't understand that it is part of the problem or it doesn't care. Either way, the need for an independent, goal-centered agency is more clear than ever.

In backing the consultant's recommendations last month, Maziarz said he believes he and DelMonte can muster the financial clout to force this issue, if that's what it takes. He said again that he hopes it doesn't come to that, but with the county's efforts at obstruction, it's looking as though it may, indeed, come to that.

The county agency, through Deputy Commissioner Cyd Bennett, makes several points in its argument, including cost savings that a government-led operation can secure and its record of attracting visitors. But all of them miss the point: To win support, a new agency has to be independent. In addition, such an agency, properly structured, will be able to do the job even better.

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