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Tourism rise is no thanks to Collins

If he had the grace of Emily Litella, Chris Collins would look at the new report lauding the achievements of Buffalo's tourism bureau and say, "Never mind."

Never mind about strong-arming the bureau's director to quit and pushing its chairwoman out the door.

Never mind about prompting another board member to say, "Enough is enough."

Never mind about financially strangling the agency that holds a key to Western New York's rebirth, starving it of money until he got his way.

But wielding the leverage of a $1 billion county budget -- instead of being a "Saturday Night Live" character -- means never having to say you're sorry, even for stripping the region of the skilled professionals it needs.

Lost amid the euphoria over last week's report from ArtsMarket was the fact that Buffalo's new prominence as a destination for cultural tourism was accomplished by the very people Collins kicked to the curb.

The county executive cut funding to the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau until he could get Chief Executive Officer Richard S. Geiger to quit.

Soon after, CVB board members Keith M. Belanger and Vice Chairman William J. Bissett quit, with Belanger complaining about the "hijacking of our independence and the ongoing political interference."

Then board Chairwoman Jennifer J. Parker resigned after Collins' interference made it impossible to do her job.

Now it turns out that the job they were doing was pretty darn good. Marketing consultant ArtsMarket reported that Buffalo is transforming itself into a national destination for cultural tourism much faster than expected.

That's no surprise to any of the former CVB officials. They had a plan, and it worked.

With an outdated convention center and limited resources, they focused on arts and cultural tourism and amateur sports, as well as on bringing in travel, architectural and heritage writers to spread the word through free media. Collaborations with WNED-TV helped publicize the Darwin Martin House and other Frank Lloyd Wright works to travel agents and tour operators.

The results are clear, from free publicity via laudatory articles in the New York Times and other major publications to the fact that the National Trust for Historic Preservation picked Buffalo for its 2011 convention.

The proof also is in the numbers. Belanger noted that benchmarks such as hotel occupancy, room rates and attendance at area attractions were growing at twice the national average before the recession and declined less here than in other areas after the recession hit.

"The vision was already there; the implementation was taking place," said Parker, the former chairwoman. "That's why we're seeing the results now."

When ArtsMarket's Louise Stevens was asked how Buffalo could build on the impressive successes, she told WNED-AM, "The first thing I would say is, 'Stay the course.' "

But it's too late for that. The people who set the course are gone, victims of Collins' meddling.

To cover his tracks, he just gave the CVB an 18 percent funding hike after starving the former managers. He -- and we -- can only hope the new managers will accomplish with more money what the former leaders accomplished with less.

Needless to say, Collins' spokesman said the ArtsMarket report doesn't change the county executive's view. But it should prompt a question for voters heading into November's elections: If the power-hungry Collins was so wrong about the CVB, how wrong is he about opponents he's targeting as he tries to take over all of county government?

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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