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Tourism dollars lost to politics

County lawmakers were busy Thursday. The political animals put the brakes on progress, let $250 million in investments go to seed, denied us coveted outside dollars and undercut one of our few growth industries.

By putting politics ahead of the public, the Democratic-led body sacrificed the community on the altar of political vendettas. By failing to put meat on the skeletal funding of our tourism board, the Legislature played dumb and acted dumber.

We placed a big bet the past decade on heritage development. We are spending $75 million to drag the zoo into the 21st century. We used $48 million to excavate history and build a Serviceman's museum at Erie Canal Harbor. We pumped more than $30 million into our Frank Lloyd Wright sites. We dropped $21 million into expanding Shea's for touring Broadway shows. The list goes on. The huge investments were made to change our bottom-barrel image and to draw visitors and fresh dollars. But nobody will come if we don't tell the world what we have.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau budget was pillaged two years ago during Joel Giambra's budget fiasco. The Legislature refused Thursday to use $2 million of surplus to patch the hole, tabling it without a vote.

I had to laugh when Legislature head Lynn Marinelli said that lawmakers giving more money to the tourism bureau would be "robbing Peter to pay Paul." Well, Peter robbed Paul to fill budget holes two years ago. Paul just wants his money back.

Lawmakers also refused to do the logical long-term fix -- fund the convention bureau with the hotel bed tax, paid largely by the visitors the bureau attracts. That was why the bed tax was born years ago. Instead, the county executive and Legislature got their claws on it. It is like leaving the care of your kid to the dotty old lady up the block.

Marinelli made noises Thursday about helping the convention bureau "in the new year." Which means tourism officials will beg for what is rightfully theirs, while the community suffers.

Legislators blamed Giambra, with some justification, for sending the bed-tax plan to them at the last minute. And they're mad at the county's financial control board for applying pro-convention bureau pressure.

But so what? The legislators' job is to do what is right for this community -- not to sacrifice what we need on the altar of petty politics and lame excuses.

The tourism bureau limps along on $1.5 million a year. It is barely enough to send out holiday cards, much less to mount a marketing campaign, bring travel writers here, bang the drum at trade shows or update its creaky, circa-1992 Web site. "We have stories to tell," lamented Rich Geiger, head of the tourism bureau, "and no way to tell them."

Nearby cities -- our competition -- spend three and four times as much on marketing as we do. They know that every ad dollar returns multiples in hotel stays, restaurant meals and museum, sports and theater tickets.

We already feel the pain. Hotel bookings have dropped 25 percent since the convention bureau pillaging. That means tens of thousands fewer visitors and millions of dollars lost.

We spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars reviving and resurrecting cultural and historic attractions. Now we won't spend a few million to tell the world. Imagine Chevy trying to sell trucks without running ads.

Once again, the public is not a priority to the politicians. They have a different agenda: egos, vendettas and turf wars. Left stranded is the community and our huge stake in heritage development. We invested a fortune in monumental attractions to draw visitors, to pump life into our gasping economy. Without tourism bureau dollars, all that we have will remain a secret.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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