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Erie County may grant more money for tourism

Erie County is exploring ways to increase and stabilize funding for Visit Buffalo Niagara, including possibly a dedicated stream of revenues to ensure more reliable financing for the regional tourism agency, county officials told the Buffalo Place board of directors Wednesday.

As part of County Executive Mark Poloncarz’ Initiatives for a Smart Economy blueprint, officials said they want to form an advisory board to come up with ways to increase the county investment in the former Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau. Dedicated, direct funding from the county is one option.

That’s part of the county’s focus on tourism as one of the 12 subject areas for investment that Poloncarz’s new plan targets. They also noted that Gov. Cuomo’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council also plans to make an investment in regional tourism, as one of the initiatives to be funded by the state’s promised Buffalo Billion.

Currently, Visit Buffalo Niagara has requested $650,000 from the county, said Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe.

“Buffalo, even given our size, is not maximizing the marketing dollars,” said Maria Whyte, county commissioner of environment and planning, who also sits on the Buffalo Place board as the county’s representative.

Increased funding would be a reversal of previous tourism cuts in past years, under prior administrations. Right now, the agency has a one-year contract with the county, and funding for the agency has been “static” since the infamous “red budget” and “green budget” crisis in 2005 under former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, she said.

The funding goes hand-in-hand with a proposed feasibility study into building a larger convention center.

“The Convention Center is a 34-year-old facility and it is showing its age,” Whyte said. “We know this from the feedback we’ve been getting about the tired-looking first floor.”

Specifically, officials noted that the convention center has 64,000 square feet of convention display space. At that size, it competes for about 740 meetings a year, averaging 750 hotel nights, with visitors staying for 2.5 days.

If it could be tripled in size to 180,000 square feet, Buffalo could compete for 1,200 conventions with 3,000 people coming for 1,500 hotel nights. That could produce a gain of $3.1 million over current revenues, she said.

Developer Paul Ciminelli, who sits on the Buffalo Place board, as well as the Empire State Development Corp. board, applauded the renewed commitment to tourism, but said he worried that a lack of a dedicated funding stream means that another county executive could change course again in the future.

But Tobe said there’s never any guarantee. “Whatever one legislature does, another one can undo,” he said. “I don’t know how you can make it ironclad.”

Poloncarz unveiled his Smart Economy program earlier this month, laying out a program of 64 economic development initiatives in which the county can appropriately take part, while not addressing other areas like the medical campus in which the county is not involved. Tobe said the plan builds on what the regional council has already proposed and “recognizes the role that Erie County would be expected to play.”

“It’s not everybody’s plan. But it’s a role the county can play,” he said. “It assumes partners in every instance.”