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Higher hotel bed tax among 71 initiatives in county's 'Smart Economy 2.0' plan

Erie County's revised economic strategy calls for raising the hotel bed tax among the 71 objectives County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wants to pursue in coming years.

Poloncarz's "Initiatives for a Smart Economy 2.0" seeks to build on his first economic plan from 2013, and covers a broad range of efforts, including tourism, brownfield redevelopment, workforce training and agriculture. Poloncarz unveiled the plan Tuesday.

The additional bed tax revenue would be split among cultural groups and the tourism promotion agency, said Patrick Kaler, president of Visit Buffalo Niagara. Forty percent would go to county arts and cultural organizations, with the remainder supporting the tourism agency.

Hoteliers and cultural agency leaders, after a year of negotiating with the tourism agency, agreed to the formula that would be used to divide the money.

"Everybody is on the same page with this," Kaler said.

Erie County's bed tax rate is lower than in almost all peer cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, underfunding the tourism agency by millions, Kaler said. Visit Buffalo Niagara receives only a third of that revenue. The convention center and arts and cultural groups share the rest.

The county hasn't raised its bed tax since 1987, Kaler said.

The plan calls for increasing the bed tax anywhere from 1 percent to 1.5 percent. Currently, hotel patrons pay a bed tax of either 3 percent or 5 percent, based on the hotel's size.

Any increase would have to be approved by the county and state legislatures.

Erie County Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said Tuesday that raising taxes concerns him but he remains uncommitted on the bed tax proposal.

Kaler said he recognizes no one likes a tax increase. But he noted this tax increase would not affect county residents but visitors to the county who stay at local hotels, where room rates remain affordable. Efforts to lobby for the increase are expected to gear up later this summer, he said.

Poloncarz said raising the bed tax rate was not his idea nor is it a priority.

"That is their request," he said of Visit Buffalo Niagara.

The additional income for cultural groups would be a good thing, he said.

On the overall plan, Poloncarz said he is not looking for a single silver bullet to transform the local economy, but rather a series of smaller efforts that can collectively grow the economy.

"When we come up with these plans, we don't just look at one big thing and say, 'OK, we're done,' " Poloncarz said. "Combined, they can make a huge difference."

His blueprint includes focusing on an "inclusive and prepared workforce." An outgrowth of the Racial Equity Roundtable, the initiative is designed to ensure that all people can participate in and benefit from a growing economy, Poloncarz said.

As for brownfield redevelopment, Poloncarz lists the redevelopment of the former Bethlehem Steel property in Lackawanna and the conversion of the Cherry Farm site in the Town of Tonawanda among his priorities.

The 70-acre Cherry Farm property, a former industrial landfill just south of the South Grand Island Bridge, has been capped and is considered environmentally safe. But it has no formal public access, despite conversations that date back 20 years to turn the property into a park.

Poloncarz's economic plan calls for spending $500,000 to $1 million for park development with an expected completion date of 2020.

Another goal, originally announced in Poloncarz's 2016 State of the County address, would compel businesses contracting with Erie County to employ a certain percentage of county workers, with special consideration given to disadvantaged workers. The details of that proposal, which Poloncarz hopes to sign as an executive order, are still being hammered out by the county's Law Department, he said.

Highlights of the 65-page report include:

  • Infrastructure: Spending millions over the next 10 years to upgrade sewage treatment plants in Lackawanna, Evans and Woodlawn, as required by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
  • Tourism: Restoring sections of the historic houses at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens by 2020, expanding the Hangar Building at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park by 2019, expanding fishing access at the Outer Harbor by early next year.
  • Agriculture: Converting the former Angola Airport into a 152-acre agriculture-oriented industrial park by 2019. The county is in negotiations with a private owner to purchase the property, Poloncarz said.
  • Inclusive and Prepared Workforce: Opening a One-Stop Career Center and expanding the horticultural program at the Erie County Correctional Facility, establishing a women's education and apprenticeship program in "middle skills" job categories that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree in male-dominated fields.
  • Energy: Creating a program, with the acronym ECLIPSE, that closes the gap between an affordable energy bill and an actual energy bill by purchasing energy in bulk and making the lower-cost energy available to poor county residents.

Poloncarz released his first economic strategy in 2013, which laid out 64 initiatives that were later distilled into 71 tracked objectives. Of that number, 54 percent have been completed, 23 percent are at least half done and 18 percent are either ongoing or less than half done.

Four objectives, including the creation of an Employment Resource Coordinating Council, have not yet begun.

But given the completion or progress on many of his original objectives, Poloncarz said it's good to advance new ideas.

"It was time to build upon those successes and take it to the next level by either growing what we originally proposed, or coming up with new ideas that were completely not thought of when we released our original plan in 2013," he said.

To roll out his latest plan, Poloncarz scheduled four Town Hall meetings throughout the county, starting Tuesday at the Merriweather Library in Buffalo. The meetings are scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The other meetings are planned for:

  • Thursday: Elma Meadows Golf Course Casino, 1711 Girdle Road, Elma;
  • June 14: Akron Falls Park Casino, 44 Parkview Drive, Akron; and
  • June 15: Sprague Brook Park Casino, 9674 Foote Road, Glenwood.

Poloncarz will also update residents on county services and programs that may be affected by changes in the federal budget.

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