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TEMPORARY SPORT-FISHING PROMOTION SET FOR VOTE

Less than two months after leaving the tourism promotion business, Niagara County is ready to jump back in -- but officials say it's only temporary.

The County Legislature is to vote Tuesday on an arrangement to resume the county's sport-fishing promotion efforts for the rest of this year.

The Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the new countywide tourism agency, has not taken any steps so far to take charge of sport fishing, in which Niagara County was long regarded as the local promotion leader.

Legislators of both parties expressed disappointment with the agency's stance at the last Legislature meeting May 6.

The county closed its tourism office March 31 and turned over its funding and equipment to the agency.

The fishing promotion program would be restored to the county budget under a measure on Tuesday's agenda. The position of sport-fishing promotion coordinator, long held by Bill Hilts Jr., would be restored.

"This is a reflection of the county's interest in the program," said Samuel M. Ferraro, county commissioner of planning and development.

The county would allocate $30,975 from a contingency fund to pay the coordinator's salary, benefits and travel costs for the rest of the year.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, said he has obtained $30,000 from Albany as a "member item" in the state budget to pay for the marketing effort.

"The NTCC isn't up and running yet. Sport fishing has to be done now," Maziarz said. "Fishing season has already started."

"The plan right now is only for the funding to occur through 2003," said Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, chairwoman of the Commerce, Tourism and Agriculture Committee.

"When this started, it was supposed to be self-sufficient," Minority Leader Gerald K. Farnham, R-Lockport, said of the tourist agency. "I don't know that sport fishing was ever part of their plan. I wish it was."

Corporation Chairman Thomas Callahan did not return a call to comment Friday, but in past interviews he has said the new agency plans an overall water recreation promotion program in which fishing would be included along with pleasure boating and beaches.

Maziarz said the agency wants to delay making a decision on fishing promotion until it hires its first president, which could occur within weeks.

"I think they realize how important this is. They want to see what happens when the new person gets on," Maziarz said.

There were differing views on whether Hilts would be rehired.

"That's what the county told me," Maziarz said, referring to Ferraro and his deputy commissioner for business development, Michael A. Casale.

"There could be a presumption (that Hilts will be rehired)," Ferraro said.

But Kimble said, "Bill Hilts has been mentioned as a possible candidate, but other interested parties will be considered."

Hilts did not return a call seeking his opinion. He has been working as a Social Services caseworker since January, a job he said earlier this year he took to protect his county benefits. Officially, he took a leave of absence from the fishing promotion job.

Hilts' salary at Social Services is $32,027; last year in the tourism office, he was paid $40,848.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is to vote Tuesday to accept $5,000 each from the state and Erie County to help pay for the Fish Odyssey tournament July 26 to Aug. 3. The county gave Infinity Broadcasting, which owns five Buffalo radio stations, $5,000 in January to promote the event.

Infinity became involved after hiring Cyd L. Bennett, the county's former tourism director, as its new business development manager. Bennett sought the funding from the two counties and from the state, where the grant came in the form of a Maziarz member item.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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