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Tourism, a key slice of the WNY economy, deserves strong support from Erie County

Two things are evident from the success that the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. is having in bringing visitors to Niagara County:

• Focused promotion works, a fact to which Erie County should pay attention.

• There is even more Niagara County can do to attract visitors, especially as outdoor activities become ever more popular.

The corporation’s annual report for 2014 clearly demonstrates the power of attraction. Its most startling statistic – one that leaders of the NTCC insist is accurate – is that the NTCC’s summer 2104 marketing and advertising campaign produced a return of $93 for every $1 spent. It’s a remarkable statistic and even if it were only half as good, it would make a powerful case for additional spending in Erie County, which put tourism spending on life support years ago.

And here are some statistics that explain some of the value of tourism and of spending money to expand it:

• With 14,232 employees, tourism makes up 20.1 percent of the Niagara County workforce and is the county’s second-largest employer.

• Labor income from tourism tops $272 million.

• Perhaps most persuasive, more than $65 million in state and local taxes was generated from tourism. If local taxpayers had to cover that cost, tax bills would rise an average of $735 per household across the county.

It’s a serious income generator and Erie County needs to move, especially as its revival takes hold and more attractions offer opportunities to draw visitors. They include the developing wonders of Canalside, HarborCenter, Larkinville and the newly aborning Richardson Olmsted Complex. They add to existing attractions such as the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and a regional concert agenda bettered only by Toronto.

Yet, since the red budget/green budget debacle of 2005, Erie County has funded tourism almost as an afterthought. What the county spends depends on the whims of lawmakers and whoever happens to be county executive. That’s because the county’s bed tax, paid by hotel guests, is funneled into the county’s general fund.

By contrast, in Niagara County, a large portion of the bed tax goes right to the agency, accounting for about 43 percent of its revenues, according to its annual report. And with funds from the Seneca Niagara Casino accounting for 41 percent of its $4.5 million in revenue, Niagara County has a major revenue source that Erie County doesn’t.

Together, this only makes it more important for Erie County to get its act together on tourism. There is an opportunity here that demands a focused, well-funded approach. Tourism is a business and it needs to be treated that way.

Meanwhile, the NTCC needs to work harder to tell the world that there is more to Niagara County than the falls. One of the prime attractions should be the gorge, which is nearly as dramatic as the falls, themselves, and which most visitors don’t even know exists. Other attractions include the Erie Canal in Lockport, the area’s Underground Railroad history, Fort Niagara and the Wine Trail.

Erie and Niagara counties can also do more to leverage each other’s attractions. Not that long ago, it was important for Erie County to try to attract some of the tourists who came to see the falls. That’s still true, but as the Buffalo waterfront develops and other attractions come on line, Niagara County should be looking to piggyback on Erie’s advantages, as well.

The bottom line is that tourism matters in Western New York, and the opportunity is only increasing. We need to do the best job possible in making use of it and, especially in Erie County, that isn’t happening.