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Buffalo Niagara? Not yet for Niagara

The Niagara USA 2010 visitors guide is out.

The 56-page magazine promotes everything in Niagara County from the Ransomville Speedway to Fatima Shrine.

What you won't find are listings for cultural attractions in Erie County like the Darwin Martin House, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Why not? That was a question raised at a meeting of tourism representatives Thursday morning in Niagara Falls as the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. unveiled a new two-year marketing strategy.

NTCC President John Percy told tourism leaders that the agency has discussed how much focus it should give cultural attractions in neighboring counties.

"We've had this discussion over and over," Percy said. "We do promote it. It's not specifically in our visitors guide. The unfortunate thing is the cost of the visitors guide. ... It's where do you stop?"

Adding more attractions outside of Niagara County, Percy said, means adding more pages to the guide at a significant cost to the NTCC.

Pamela Forge, publisher of "Explore New York," attended Thursday's meeting and had a different take.

"I think I can shed light on that," Forge said after the meeting. "Most counties, because of the government funding and bed tax, have to be parochial about things. It's a shame."

Read more about the NTCC's new two-year marketing strategy here.

Listen to Percy describe the marketing strategy in this audio clip:

-- Denise Jewell Gee

A moment with the prime minister

   When the press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up, a Niagara Falls woman had her chance to mingle with the powerful.

   Norma Higgs, chairwoman of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, sat in the front row during Harper's appearance at the Queenston toll plaza today.

   After Harper spoke and took questions from reporters, he started working the room. He walked over and began chatting with Higgs, who had been sitting with other commissioners.

   Higgs said she introduced herself and thanked the prime minister for coming.

   She then told him her father was Canadian, to which Harper responded with a story about a relative who was an American and had lived in Berlin.

   "We're all together in this," she said. "My dad was Canadian. Most of my relatives are Canadian."

   Higgs said she was excited to have been invited to meet the prime minister.

   Read a story about Harper's visit here.

  -- Aaron Besecker

If Indians are coming to the Falls in waves, is more marketing needed?

   There is no doubt in the eyes of those on the ground in Niagara Falls that the famous falls have become a popular attraction for travelers from India.

   A story in today's Buffalo News takes a look at how the spending power and travel patterns of visitors from India have changed in recent years.

   But what is in question is whether a publicly funded agency, Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., should spend money to send its staff to India twice in about a year to promote Niagara Falls USA.

   Niagara Falls restaurateur Paramjit Singh is from India and has taken notice of the influx of travelers from his homeland. He owns three restaurants, Punjabi Hut, the Twist of the Mist and Misty Dog on Niagara Street, and said he sees a steady stream of Indian visitors at his restaurants.

   Singh would like to see those public dollars spent on cleaning up downtown Niagara Falls rather than marketing the region directly to India.

   One of the problems, says Niagara Falls Councilman Sam Fruscione, is that NTCC has kept the details of its annual budget a secret and won't release receipts for its travel.

   The countywide tourism marketing and promotion agency is funded primarily through hotel occupancy taxes and local casino revenue.

   In an attempt to be more transparent -- and under pressure from Niagara Falls leaders -- NTCC president and chief executive John Percy sent the city a copy of its two-page, 2009 budget earlier this month.

   Percy contends a five-day promotional trip he and another staff member took to India last month was necessary to encourage India-based tour operators to offer packages with longer stays in Niagara Falls.

   Fruscione, who is running for re-election and has made NTCC spending a campaign issue, wants more information about NTCC's travel and its annual budget.

   How would you like to see Niagara Falls marketed?

- Denise Jewell Gee

A new attraction for downtown Niagara Falls

   A proposed new attraction for downtown Niagara Falls took another step forward Tuesday.

   Plans for a year-round snow park -- complete with a 65-foot tubing hill and synthetic ice rink -- have been granted tax breaks by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

   The proposal comes from Snow Park LLC, owned by entrepreneur Joseph Anderson, who runs the  Smokin' Joes gas stations and other area businesses.

   The site of the proposed snow park is at Main and First streets in downtown Niagara Falls.

   Niagara Falls, home to a natural wonder, is criticized for not having enough attractions to keep tourists here for longer stays.

   Do you think this will help? How do you feel about Anderson's idea?

   --Aaron Besecker

As expected, the county files lawsuit over casino revenue split

Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte and State Sen. Antoine Thompson included language in the recently passed state budget that strips away a small slice of Seneca Niagara casino slots revenue from Niagara County and adds to the bounty of the City of Niagara Falls.

That hasn't set well with the County Legislature, which overwhelmingly passed a resolution at its Tuesday night meeting to file a lawsuit seeking not only to overturn the budget resolution but also to take a greater share of revenue away from New York state.

Who can blame county lawmakers? The county's slots share so far -- $976,892 -- is less than 2 percent of the $50 million of slots revenue that has flowed to the local community since the casino opened. That accounts for one-quarter of the slots revenue.

The state, meanwhile, gets the other three-quarters; about $150 million since the casino opened New Year's Eve 2002.

Falls and county politicians both say they need the small percentage the county has received. County officials say payments they have made to fund festivals and help local organizations -- sometimes in amounts as small as $1,000 -- go a long way for small groups. City officials say that money could become a dedicated revenue source for fixing streets in Niagara Falls that are riddled with potholes, a problem even Gov. David A. Paterson said is a priority when he was in Niagara Falls last month.

Both say they'd like to take a greater share of slots money from the state's share, too.

It ought to be interesting to see how this battle ends.

Controversy swirls in Maid of the Mist's wake

   It's one of the longest concession leases for any state park in New York, and it was renewed in 2002 with no public bidding and no public hearing.

   The Maid of the Mist Corp.'s lease with the state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation was signed in September 2002 by Edward J. Rutkowski, former assistant deputy commissioner for the Western District, and will expire in 2043.

   Despite its unusual length, the contract renewal drew little attention. A decision that the boat excursion company qualified as a "sole source" provider that does not require public bidding or a public hearing was approved by the state Comptroller's Office in 2003.

   More than five years later, the Niagara Parks Commission in Canada has renegotiated its contract with the Maid of the Mist and is expected to ask the Executive Council of Ontario to approve the deal soon, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism said.

   But some are crying foul … including a Niagara Parks commissioner in Ontario who had served on a committee that oversees renegotiating the deal.

   Commissioner Bob Gale said he grew concerned that he and other committee members weren't given information that a representative from another company -- Ripley's Entertainment -- had requested information about submitting a proposal to compete with the Maid of the Mist.

   Gale wants the process for negotiating the Maid of the Mist lease to become more transparent.

   Many of the terms of the Maid of the Mist's existing contract to use Canadian land to dock its boats have not been made public.

   Do you think parks leaders in New York state or in Ontario have gotten this right?

   Should the Maid of the Mist's long history, international business arrangements and unique location qualify it for special consideration when it comes to leasing public land?

  -- Denise Jewell Gee

Falls Mob Tours -- sad or colorful chapter?

   As home to one of the country's important but largely unknown crime families, Niagara Falls has a new offering for tourists, as we wrote about in today's Buffalo News.

   Buffalo businessman Michael Rizzo (pictured) is heading into his third weekend of running the Mob Tours, 90-minute bus rides to sites in the cityMike_rizzo_4  ruled by the Magaddinos for decades.

   The interactive experience takes customers on rides past places where the Mafia lived, worked and played.

   Sites like the former Niagara Street funeral home that was the Magaddino family headquarters

    Or the restaurant where judges, baseball players and other powerful and famous people paid the don tribute.

   Or the homes that were bombed, turning them into murder scenes.

   What do you think of Rizzo's idea to offer tours highlighting Niagara Falls' mob history?

   Is it a part of the city's past that should be forgotten? Or should it play a part in the city's future as an element of the tourist industry?

Aaron Besecker

Niagara Falls tourism -- where do we go from here?

After a ride on the Maid of the Mist and a drenching at the Cave of the Winds, the choices for tourists are limited in downtown Niagara Falls -- unless, of course, you're a gambler.

    The Seneca Niagara Casino surely can keep visitors in the central business district, until they become separated from too much of their money, but the list of other entertainment choices remains relatively thin: a modest visitor center, an aquarium, the Hard Rock Cafe, a small number of restaurants, several bars.

     Much of downtown is either empty or underused. The Rainbow Centre mall, the old Oxy building, the former Wintergarden, the ex-Turtle. These are hardly the kind of welcome mats that local, regional, state and national leaders should want laid out for international visitors and city residents alike.

     But there they sit, year after year after year, with little will, it often seems, for those in charge to take real action.

     A relatively new core of leaders in Niagara Falls tourist circles vows change. We asked four of those leaders this question:

     What does Niagara Falls most need to improve tourism downtown?

     Their answers are in today's Niagara Weekend section for Niagara County readers of The Buffalo News, and on the Niagara County section of for our online readers.

     How would you answer the question?

-- Niagara County Bureau Chief Scott Scanlon

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