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Regional tourism needs a system <br> Cutting funds offers chance to rebuild effort from zero

In theory, the timing could have been worse, but even coming when it did, the collapse of Erie County's tourism promotion budget is plenty bad enough. Yet, as we're told, every crisis is an opportunity. As tourism promotion ebbs, why not start from scratch? Find fresh approaches, new directions, better coordination. In short, do the job right.

The area was just starting to capitalize on its architectural heritage, and was preparing a 2006 marketing splash, when Erie County's leaders lopped its already pitiful tourism budget, reducing it by 41 percent, to $1.7 million this year from $2.9 million in 2004. Even last year's larger figure is less than Rochester spent this year and millions less than cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, which expects to spend $9 million in 2005.

Money plays a crucial role in competing for tourists. The industry works a couple of years ahead. Erie County needs to send emissaries to tourism trade shows now, and bring tour operators here, to drum up business for 2007 and beyond. The county Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates this region's competitors outspend it 4-to-1. Buffalo falls behind again.

The problem, of course, is the county's financial crisis. With workers laid off, it is hardly strange that tourism promotion would also take a hit. But it is shortsighted in the extreme. CVB officials say each dollar invested in tourism marketing returns as much as $21; even if it only returns $5 or $3, is it not worth it in a cash-starved region? Delaware North Cos., one of the giants in domestic tourism, is across the street from the CVB. Has anyone asked for guidance?

Yet, whether out of foolishness or desperation, Erie County pilfered money meant for tourism promotion. The county executive's office is siphoning money produced by the 5 percent bed tax on hotel rooms. That money should be dedicated to tourism marketing. County Executive Joel A. Giambra's 2006 spending plan includes raising the bed tax to 7 percent for tourism marketing. But where's the guarantee it will get there?

Until county leaders write the effort a check, tourism leaders need to retrench, focusing on core markets, and foregoing for the moment potentially lucrative but expensive efforts to bring in travelers from more speculative markets. The county also has to look for new marketing partners, including nearby tourist destinations and private companies, such as outdoor stores and venues.

In Erie County, first and foremost, that has to mean making a concerted effort to lure the tourists who are already traveling to Niagara Falls -- on both sides of the border. There's an old saying: If you've got a drum, beat it.

Tuesday : Cooperate on tourism assets.

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