The approach may have been flawed, but the recent effort by the Erie County control board to boost a regional investment in a more prosperous future was a good one. Economic growth is essential to long-term recovery and the restoration of county services and fiscal health, and returning the bed tax to its original use for regional marketing simply makes sense.
Tourism attractions and convention destinations need aggressive promotion, or they will wither. The Buffalo region is betting on cultural and heritage tourism as one of its main hopes for the future. In a highly competitive industry, promotion is absolutely essential -- and this region's efforts already lag far behind those of competing cities, in terms of funding.
That's why it makes sense for the county control board to support increased funding to the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau -- especially when the funding mechanism, a visitor bed tax originally designated for that purpose but partially diverted to other county needs in past years, could be restored to its initial intent.
County legislators see that need, but want to restore the funding more gradually. County workers and county unions also should see this as a bet on the future and a chance to increase sales tax revenues and eventually grow the county property values and the tax base, rebuilding county fiscal health for future negotiations.
If there was a flaw in the control board approach, it was in the effort to make that pitch quietly. Recently, Board Chairman Anthony J. Baynes was part of a delegation, also including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, that met privately with legislative leaders to ask for $2.1 million in new funding to the Visitors Bureau. Some legislators subsequently accused the board of behind-the-scenes lobbying.
The state-appointed board should conduct inquiries in a public forum. Anything else smacks of politics. County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz is absolutely correct -- the issue should have been resolved as part of budget deliberations last month. But that doesn't weaken the argument for more funding.
Tourist dollars produce and retain jobs, boosting the local economy. Erie County reduced funding from the hotel bed tax in 2005 by 50 percent, spending the money on other uses. The Legislature this year restored another $500,000. County Executive Joel A. Giambra now is calling for setting aside the sought-for $2.1 million in the existing county budget. That's solid recognition of the need for this investment, but unfortunately it would lower the reported $21.7 million surplus and reduce the amount of money going into the county's reserves.
Giambra, to his credit, wants eventually to designate all the county's hotel bed tax revenue, worth an estimated $6.4 million next year, for its properly intended marketing use. It's important for the county to act as quickly as it can afford to. Destination and tourism marketing efforts pay off in future years, not necessarily immediately, and shortcomings now will delay recovery.
Giambra has wanted to restore money to the Visitors Bureau for a long time, but the county's fiscal crunch has made budgets extremely tight. Restoring the hotel bed tax to its original use on a permanent basis should be a priority.