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Forum focuses on Niagara Falls tourism

NIAGARA FALLS – Regional attractions are losing visitors from school field trips because of budget cuts.

Some signage in downtown Niagara Falls may be either missing or misleading to tourists.

Shifty tour guides are attempting shakedowns at local attractions.

And there still is no means of transportation connecting attractions in the Falls to others around Niagara County and the region.

These were some of the issues and concerns that bubbled up during a tourism forum Monday morning in Earl W. Brydges Library.

Business people and others involved in the hospitality and tourism industries in the Falls and county addressed four Republican members of the state Assembly in an event sponsored by the Assembly Minority Economic Development, Education & Infrastructure Task Force.

A few dozen people attended the session, including representatives of various sectors of the industry, including hotels, restaurants, historic and educational sites and wineries.

Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said that while the Youngstown attraction is projecting that this year will be its best since 1983, it has seen a decline in the number of visits by local school children on field trips.

“We’re seeing a tremendous growth in Asian tourism at Old Fort Niagara,” Emerson said. “And I think it’s ironic that Asians can afford to visit the fort, but we can’t even send our own kids there because of budget cuts for field trips.”

Paul Poulos, who runs Star Food Mart, a gas station and convenience store on Main Street across from the Howard Johnson hotel, told lawmakers there are some signs directing tourists towards the falls that don’t actually lead them there. At least one sign over Main Street that pointed people towards the falls is no longer there, Poulos said.

Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. President and CEO John H. Percy Jr., acknowledged that signage as “an issue we all have to work on.”

Efforts to initiate some type of tourist trolley that would help move visitors between area attractions have been hindered mostly by a lack of funding, said Percy, who said he would like to see some of the state’s “Buffalo Billion” pledge be committed to a public tourist transportation system.

Ray Wigle of the Niagara County Historical Society, who has worked in the tourism industry for more than three decades, said the region needs to focus on three lessons he believes have been learned over the years – promote the area as a region, realize that there’s no “one quick solution” to fix the area’s problems and work on many of the small problems at once.

“There are many pieces of puzzle,” Wigle said, “and all need to be worked on at the same time.”

Paul Faltyn of the Niagara Aerospace Museum told the panel about a visit about a month ago from a couple of vans from a local tour company, bringing visitors to the attraction in the old terminal at Niagara Falls International Airport.

Faltyn said the tour operators approached him and asked for him to give them $5 for each person they brought to the museum.

Faltyn said he was told by the tour operators “if you want to get into the tourism game in Niagara Falls, that’s what you have to do.” He told lawmakers he viewed the interaction as an attempted “shakedown.”

Percy described the practice as one stemming from “an old-school mentality.”

Assemblyman John D. Ceretto of Lewiston told the crowd he talked to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week after the governor had taken a ride around both the American and Canadian sides.

“He thought Niagara Falls was further ahead than what it is,” Ceretto said of Cuomo’s comments to him.

Visiting both sides was “almost like night and day,” Ceretto said he was told by the governor.

In addition to Ceretto, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence, Assemblyman David DiPietro of East Aurora and Assemblyman Bill Reilich of Greece, the task force chairman, also attended Monday’s session.