Could Erie County finally come around and realize that underfunding its tourism agency is costing millions of dollars in missed opportunities? We hope so.
The county is exploring ways to increase and stabilize funding for Visit Buffalo Niagara. This effort could include a dedicated stream of revenue, according to what county officials recently told the Buffalo Place board of directors.
This type of discussion was once unheard of, except from those who actually had to promote this area on a very tight budget with shaky prospects for more. County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz could be the first – should be the first – in a long time to see the light.
Improved funding for Visit Buffalo Niagara fits into Poloncarz’s Initiatives for a Smart Economy. The county executive has offered an encouraging, if noncommittal at this point, sign in the proposal to form an advisory board to come up with ways to increase county funding for Visit Buffalo Niagara, formerly the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A dedicated line of funding from the county is one option being considered to boost tourism, one of the 12 initiatives proposed by Poloncarz. Another leverage point is the Regional Economic Development Council’s decision to push regional tourism, which could be funded by the state’s promised Buffalo Billion.
Either way, Visit Buffalo Niagara could use another $650,000 from the county. It’s money that should have been directed there by previous administrations. Maria Whyte, county commissioner of environment and planning, said Buffalo is not maximizing the marketing dollars. Whyte is also the county’s representative on the Buffalo Place board. Visit Buffalo Niagara has just a one-year contract with the county and hasn’t seen its funding increase much since the red budget/green budget financial crisis in 2005, when Joel A. Giambra was county executive.
Opening the fiscal spigot a little wider is a good start. Also on tap is a feasibility study into building a larger convention center.
We’ve heard talk about a new convention center for years; it’s worth looking into whether such an enormous project would make economic sense. At 64,000 square feet, the current convention center cannot compete for the largest conventions, the ones that offer the most revenue to hotels and restaurants.
A convention center triple that size would be able to handle much bigger conventions that could produce a gain of $3.1 million over current revenues, Whyte said.
Visit Buffalo Niagara released a report showing that last year it received about $3.9 million, compared to the Cleveland agency’s nearly $9 million and Pittsburgh’s $9.4 million. This area trails in comparison with two comparable cities: Grand Rapids, Mich., at $5.3 million, and Milwaukee, Wis., at $7.6 million.
Even with that small budget, tourism in Erie County generated $105 million in local taxes and $86 million in state taxes last year.
The agency used to get funding based on a bed tax charged to hotel guests, as in other cities. But Erie County’s red/green debacle ended that, when the cash-strapped county swept the money into the general fund.
Tourism is one of those wonderful businesses that brings new money to the area, rather than just moving around what is already here. Considering that studies show every dollar spent on tourism promotion produced $32 in spending by visitors, it is clear that shortchanging the agency that promotes tourism was not only wrong-headed, but costly.
Dedicated funding for Visit Buffalo Niagara and a convention center feasibility study are important pieces of the economic development puzzle.