With the city poised to take a step forward in the tourism world with the opening of the Seneca Nation casino, its image appears headed for a black eye over the flip-flop on supporting the new unified tourism marketing agency for Niagara County.
The city has decided to abandon the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and keep financing the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, City Administrator Albert T. Joseph said. "We don't believe that going to a countywide organization that's underfunded and understaffed is in the best interests of the people of Niagara Falls," Joseph said last week.
The city would become interested again only if the county agency's budget, business plan and staffing levels passed muster with Mayor Irene J. Elia and the City Council, Joseph said.
Seneca casino officials have promised to help fund the new county agency after the casino opens. State officials have gotten the agency seed money, written legislation for it and vowed to pursue financial support from Niagara Reservation State Park. County officials have voted for it, with hotel occupancy taxes directed to its budget.
"The full impact of budget changes only became apparent to the mayor in recent weeks," Joseph said.
The mayor, he explained, noticed that the agency's payroll wouldn't be enough to hire enough former employees of the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau to preserve its collective experience, Joseph said.
Actually, the staffing level would be set by the agency's executive director, according to Christopher Glynn, Maid of the Mist president and chairman of the new agency's board.
The new tourism board's repeated statements that it would welcome applications from current employees isn't enough, Joseph said. "They're saying they're going to hire a new director from out of town who will have full control over (whom) he hires," Joseph said. "They're also telling us that it will be a very minimal staff."
Council members also have complained that the city would be ill-served if Niagara Falls hotel occupancy taxes provided 75 percent of initial funding when the new agency would promote Niagara County, too.
The contract that Elia has declined to sign would transfer between $900,000 and $1 million in hotel occupancy taxes collected in Niagara Falls to the new agency, which also would get about $300,000 to $400,000 from City of Lockport and Niagara County hotel occupancy taxes.
Those looking forward to working with the new agency include Mickey Brown, head of the Seneca Niagara Falls Gaming Corp.
Next year, once the casino is open, the corporation expects to formalize the relationship. "Once they get organized, get an executive director and a budget, we'll sit down and decide what we can do to support it," Brown said. "We will support it financially."
"The mayor and the City Council talk about doing things in a cooperative way, but when it comes to the potential of a couple cronies of theirs not having jobs, they put everything in jeopardy," said State Sen. George Maziarz, a chief backer of the unified agency.
Maziarz acknowledged that some sources of funding envisioned in the initial plan hadn't come through. But he said he and others will continue working to get financial support from state parks and other sources.
To throw a wrench into the works at this point would send a clear signal to tourism companies considering bringing jobs and investment to Niagara Falls, Maziarz said -- "The message that the city is more interested in protecting a couple of its friends than it is in moving forward."
Glynn said he was frustrated by recent events. The funding contract with Niagara Falls seems held up by an issue resolved long ago or never raised by Elia, who, as the city's representative on the board, had attended its meeting for months.
"These are the same questions we've been answering for months," Glynn said. "The money is less than we were hoping, but enough to get it started. The business plan will be written by the executive. (Convention and Visitors Bureau) employees are welcome to apply for jobs."
The USA Niagara Development Corp., the state's Niagara Falls development entity, also has supported the new agency.