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Program OK'd to fund grants for tourism

A $110,000 marketing program designed to provide financial grants to tourism and business groups was approved Wednesday by the Cattaraugus County Legislature.

The program -- to be funded in part with the county's 5 percent occupancy tax revenues -- will return some surplus occupancy tax money to Chambers of Commerce and nonprofit business groups, which asked legislators and tourism officials to devote some of the revenue to communities paying to market the county's attractions.

Earmarked for this purpose was $63,000, left over after most of the 2004 occupancy tax was used to pay $347,000 of the Economic Development Department's tourism and operations expenses. Supporters of the legislation say the 2005 revenue will surpass the first year's income and that some of this money should help the chambers' efforts. They said the occupancy tax revenue has equaled or surpassed a 1 percent share of the tax levy.

Opponents fear the larger tourism groups representing Olean and Ellicottville will receive the largest portion of the funding, while smaller towns' tourism efforts will go unfunded.

The county several years ago ended a similar tourism marketing program that expended varying portions of Tourism Promotion Agency's $60,000 in tax funds on chamber tourism grants and county marketing projects. The Tourism Promotion Agency did not seek funding in the past several years and the new system was proposed after several chambers and groups requested a share of the occupancy tax revenue.

The county's Economic Development, Planning and Tourism Department will now create a set of guidelines for dispensing funds and seek approval for the process from the Legislature's Development and Agriculture Committee.
Few details about those guidelines have been decided, but some information was brought out during lengthy debate and questioning that preceded the 12-8 vote for passage.

Eligible applicants for funding must be Chambers of Commerce or nonprofit business associations in Cattaraugus County that have spent money on tourism promotions in 2005.

Tourism department officials will screen grant applications and pass recommendations to the Development and Agriculture Committee, which will then sponsor legislation for awards to the successful proposals. The full Legislature will have to approve a final award.

Tourism officials have hinted at several new marketing approaches, including an educational program for chambers, casino marketing and an Enchanted Mountains promotion.

Jess Fitzpatrick, R-Ellicottville, Legislature chairman and a sponsor of the program, pointed out that every $1 spent on tourism will return $9 to the county and noted some chambers hope to build up the summer's end and fall traffic.

Voting against the legislation was Paul J. Schafer, R-Olean, who questioned why the proposal was advanced just as the 2006 budget preparations are gearing up.

Kenneth W. "Bucky" McClune, D-Salamanca, also voted against the measure.

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