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SEP 09- SEP 17, 2014

What's Behind Push for Tourism Director?
Is Tourism Board unhappy with NTCC, or a plan to reward ?

By Anna M. Howard

September 09, 2014

John Percy was called out for his travels.

The Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Board (TAB) recently proposed that the administration of Mayor Paul Dyster create a brand new position at city hall, director of tourism.

TAB board member, businessman Shawn Weber, was quoted in the Niagara Gazette, saying, "We need an infrastructure here that can take care of the daily operations of tourism that's really beyond the NTCC's (Niagara Tourism and Convention Center) scope." That's what he was quoted as saying.

The NTCC is a not-for-profit corporation which gets most of the city's tourism budget, and has taken the position that, because it is a private corporation, it does not have to reveal how it spends public money.

The TAB, on the other hand, gets no public money. It was created in 2007 by former Councilman Sam Fruscione in order to put a select group of city residents in touch with the needs of the local tourism industry.

The TAB, under the chairmanship of Jerry Genova, was often vocal and controversial.

The current TAB, seated in January 2014, after Fruscione lost his bid for re-election, is chaired by Lisa Vitello, an employee of the city's Finance Department, who is a friend, and campaign aide, of Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti. She is also the sister-in-law of Dyster's campaign manager, Craig Touma and the sister of his wife, City Judge Diane Vitello.

Mayor Dyster, according to the Gazette article, had a tepid response to the TAB's desire to create a new position in his already top-heavy city hall.

The mayor said, "I don't think we want to expand the size of the (economic development) department overall."

He suggested blending the new tourism duties into an existing city hall job.

Chairperson Vitello disagreed.

"We don't want this new person (director of tourism) to get bogged down with things that aren't tourism related," she told the Gazette.

On Sept. 4, the Gazette weighed in with an editorial that arguably gave a qualified recommendation for the new job, writing "While the advisory board often discusses ideas for improving the tourist experience in the Falls, they often feel at a loss when it comes to having their proposals implemented."

On the other hand, the Niagara Falls Reporter is opposed to creating a new job. Firstly, the TAB advisory board is just that…advisory. They were constituted to talk, listen and recommend to the best of their abilities. They have no budget, no department to direct and were never given a guarantee that anything they say, do, or recommend will be implemented.

The Genova-led TAB weighed in on tourism development and business, local laws effecting tourism and even called out NTCC CEO John Percy, demanding – and getting – an audit of the NTCC that showed Percy was irresponsibly spending city dollars.

The Genova-led TAB board was the first tourism organization to support Nik Wallenda's wire walk over Niagara Falls. They were instrumental in establishing Friday evening live entertainment on Old Falls Street; Sunday evening live jazz at the NACC; the change of downtown signage laws; wrote resolutions; called for the closure of the Parkway; modified vendor laws for special events and the downtown tourism corridor; and wrote motor coach regulations for the city.

The TAB, from 2007-2013, never recommended the creation of a city tourism job or the establishment of a city Tourism Department.

Throughout the Genova-Fruscione tenure, however, the TAB was aided by Dyster's media relations person, and then council secretary, Kevin J. Ormsby. He worked on all the above TAB projects, along with carrying out media work for TAB, recording TAB minutes, and maintaining TAB records, in conjunction with his other duties at city hall. He did not receive any additional pay for these services.

That the new TAB should consider the creation of a Tourism Director position and the inevitable department that would follow, is something sure to be costly.

A tourism director's position in Dyster's high-paid city hall would pay at least $70,000 plus benefits. The tourism office would require a clerical person at a cost of no less than $35,000 plus benefits. Toss in office space, computers, city vehicle, cell phone, copy machine, furniture and an operating budget for travel and the TAB proposal easily comes in at an annual $200,000 or more.

This raises a greater question: Is the call for a city tourism director simply an acknowledgment that TAB is unhappy with NTCC?

The city and county signed an agreement in 2003 that closed out their respective tourism departments (County Tourism Department and the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau) and agreed to fund the operation of the NTCC as its tourism representative. The NTCC is presently helmed by Percy, a former employee of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To call for an extraneous tourism department after the old one was closed down in favor of the NTCC, suggests that someone is unhappy with the bang the city is getting for its tourism buck with the NTCC.

And a whopping buck it is. The annual cost to the city for the NTCC is more than $2 million: seven percent of casino cash or $1 million whichever is greater (about $1.4 million in recent years) and 80 percent of bed tax revenues, (about $900,000 in recent years).

What the city gets for this money is anybody's guess.

Three years ago then-Councilman Fruscione questioned NTCC expenditures. He called for an audit and was pilloried in the press and attacked by Percy sycophants in the tourism community.

When the smoke cleared, however it was revealed that the NTCC had failed to keep adequate expenditure records and had spent city funds in countless, dubious ways. (Percy spent $30,000 on massages, had numerous $1,000 dinners and spent $100,000's on exotic trips that produced no measurable results).

But Fruscione never received credit for trying to protect taxpayer dollars. Fast forward to the present: The TAB should explain why they want to take city tourism into their own hands.

They should say why they are unsatisfied with the way the NTCC administers city tourism.

Mayor Dyster also should state whether he is for or against the TAB call for a tourism position. So far he has muddled their wishes by saying he wants to meld their request into an existing city hall position.

The TAB board members should also clearly disclose if they already have a candidate for this position.

Is this desire for a new position at city hall motivated by a perceived need in tourism, because the NTCC is not doing their job, or is it motivated by a need to find someone a good paying job?

The mayor came into office in 2007, and promptly pushed department head salaries through the roof with department heads making more than $100,000 per year for the first time ever.

He handed out overtime pay like it was Christmas Eve and he was Santa Claus. There are city hall employees who have nearly doubled their annual salaries through overtime. On top of that, Dyster continues to award employee "stipends" as a way to get around promotions, upgrades and raises, resulting in an out of control "I want a stipend, too" mentality by city employees.

In light of this, are we to blame Vitello and TAB for wanting to hop on the Dyster gravy train?

But, one question remains: is TAB unhappy with John Percy's NTCC or is this a job creation for some special person?





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