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New Year’s event loses funding from Falls

NIAGARA FALLS – When an oversized guitar drops to ring in 2015 in downtown Niagara Falls, the party will go on without any funding from the city.

And the unwillingness to pay has left some city officials and tourism advocates scratching their heads.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster wanted the city to contribute $27,000 to the Hard Rock Café’s event on New Year’s Eve. But his request to city lawmakers for approval of the spending was withdrawn earlier this month before they even had a chance to vote. The mayor said he put the item on the City Council’s agenda because he was told he had the support of three of its members, only to pull the proposal back right before the vote because he knew he didn’t have the support.

In a place that’s relying on tourism for its future, including drawing crowds for events that support restaurants and hoteliers, the sixth annual party and concert will still take place downtown, even without the city’s contribution.

Some members of the city’s Tourism Advisory Board, including Chairwoman Lisa A. Vitello, questioned the lawmakers’ decision, pointing to the millions of public dollars spent on improving infrastructure, including on Old Falls Street.

“I really don’t see the point in making it look beautiful down there, which it does, and have nothing down there,” Vitello said.

Board member Ernest Lucantonio noted that the funding would come from the city’s tourism fund, which is where the city’s portion of bed tax is collected, not from property taxes. Business owners who pay the bed tax have a fair expectation that money should be used to invest in things that aid tourism efforts, he said.

“People want to see something for that money,” Lucantonio said.

At the same time, some wondered why a proposal for funding a New Year’s Eve event was being considered only several weeks before it happened.

“The fact that we’re talking about this in December is crazy,” said board member Shawn J. Weber.

Some Council members also thought timing was an issue, but in another way.

Both Chairman Charles A. Walker and Councilman Andrew P. Touma said they were not willing to support the funding at a time when they’re dealing with a city budget that raises taxes and when the future of some city employees’ jobs had been uncertain.

Touma, who called the amount of the proposed contribution “pretty significant,” said he would have supported the measure even the month prior, before serious financial issues emerged during the budget process.

“I didn’t think the timing was right,” Touma said. “It’s difficult to ask the taxpayers for an increase and then go and fund something like this.”

Walker acknowledged that while spending the money from the tourism fund would have had no impact on the city budget, it was still public money.

Walker said he may support funding in a lower amount for the event, but added he has not had any conversations with other city officials about bringing it up again for a vote.

After the meeting Dec. 8, when Dyster pulled the proposal, both Councilmen Robert A. Anderson and Glenn A. Choolokian said they would not have supported providing city funding for the event.

Dyster called tourism “a critical segment of our economy,” and said spending money on a concert or festival should be “our bread and butter” and hardly a “frivolous expenditure.”

He said investment is required to make a tourism economy work, whether lawmakers understand it or not.

The mayor said he believes previous investments in downtown events have led to many of the multimillion-dollar development projects now in the works in the area.

“I fought very hard in the election last fall to get Council members who were reliable, whose word you could trust so we could get ourselves into a situation where the city is taken seriously,” Dyster said after the meeting. “This type of situation, it does not help.”

This isn’t the first time this year lawmakers have rejected to support a Hard Rock event. In May, the Council rejected a proposal to spend $40,000 on a free outdoor summer concert.

The New Year’s Eve event features a free outdoor concert on Old Falls Street starting at 8 p.m. Performers include Theory of a Deadman, Dirty Smile and MENEW. The guitar drop will be held at the Giacomo Hotel, 222 First St.

Asked how the lack of a city contribution would impact the event, a spokesperson for Hard Rock Café declined to comment.