LOCKPORT – The leaders of several of Niagara County’s leading tourist-related businesses defended the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. in a vigorous public comment period at Tuesday’s County Legislature meeting.
The Legislature voted to renew the contract for a year, but the clock started Tuesday night, rather than being retroactive to the expiration date of the old 10-year contract in February.
Terms of a new contract remain to be worked out. “What we’re trying to accomplish is transparency, oversight, better supervision of expenses,” said Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda.
NTCC CEO John Percy said the agency’s Finance Committee reviews all the expenses every month and a board member co-signs every check.
“Everything you want is already in here,” Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, told the Republicans, referring to the NTCC’s proposed contract.
The Legislature’s Republican majority had proposed the one-year deal with the county’s tourism promotion agency. During that year, an outside expert will be sought to analyze the NTCC’s performance.
The Democrats countered with a 10-year renewal of the contract. Percy had at first proposed a 15-year renewal. His proposal called for the selection of an outside expert to look into the corporation’s performance every three years.
Most of the NTCC’s money comes from the bed tax on hotel and motel bills, with the lion’s share from Niagara Falls.
The county and the City of Lockport also contribute, and Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker has been a consistent critic of Percy’s performance, especially in regard to promotion of his city.
“I just want to make sure Lockport gets taken care of,” Tucker said. “We need to improve communication. We’ve had zero. I’ve gotten four calls from [Percy] since he’s been there.”
Tucker said he supports the one-year renewal. “I consider ourselves a tourism town,” he told the legislators. “It seems like for the last six or seven years, all we’ve really been doing in the City of Lockport is arguing with John and the NTCC.”
Percy, addressing the Legislature, admitted, “We’ve been remiss in not communicating more with you.”
He said that if an outside expert is hired, “I would ask that we be involved in that process to ensure that person is unbiased.”
“We’re going to make sure the contract benefits all the stakeholders,” said Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport.
Tucker said the official Niagara tourism website and publications give short shrift to Lockport and always have. “We get buried in the back,” he said. “We need to buy some time to get this stuff right for the City of Lockport. If we sit down and negotiate a 10- or 15-year agreement, then all these things are off the table.”
Galeb Rizek, owner of the Niagara Falls EconoLodge and vice chairman of the NTCC board, said the organization must promote “the county as a whole instead of individual micro-destinations.”
He credited the NTCC’s work for increasing bed tax revenues 70 percent since 2004 “with little change in inventory.” He said his family, which is planning to build another Falls hotel, might rethink that plan if the NTCC is weakened.
“The NTCC has done a great job,” said Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson. “But a 10- or 15-year contract, I’m very uncomfortable with that.”
John Kinney, owner of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, credited the NTCC with boosting his business to the point that its Lewiston terminus provides half the revenue instead of the 3 percent in the pre-NTCC days. “Let’s give these extremely professional people the contract they deserve,” he said.
“It would be foolish to change what we’ve got going here,” said Melinda Vizcarra, co-owner of Becker Farms. She said the NTCC has brought in international travel writers whom her business never could have lured on its own.
“The fear is that a few politicians and their advisers will destroy everything that has been accomplished,” said Mike Murphy, owner of Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises, an NTCC board member.