End of the Road for Cash Strapped NTCC?
By Mike Hudson
John Percy, the high-flying, highfalutin grandee who heads up the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., the corporation that, for the last 10 years, has been hired by the city to promote tourism, may soon find himself alongside thousands of his less refined Western New York neighbors on the unemployment line, if the Niagara Falls City Council has anything to say about it.
The city's current contract to fund the NTCC through bed tax money expires today, April 30. Mayor Paul Dyster has thus far failed to put forth a resolution extending the contract and, even if he did, a majority of council members told the Niagara Falls Reporter over the weekend they would vote against it.
Without council approval to renew the contract, the city's bed tax money - about $1 million per year - starting May 1, will not be paid to the NTCC.
City Councilman Sam Fruscione said he's had it with Percy and his organization.
"When the NTCC contract is placed in front of us, we are going to table it, hold that money and begin to dismantle the NTCC and take the money back for our residents," he said. "We could pave the streets (with bed tax money). We could cut down more (dead) trees. We could take down more houses. We could continue to do sidewalks. The visible things that make a city seem prosperous. That will attract and be attractive to tourists."
Fruscione criticized the NTCC and said that they did "a lot of traveling, a lot of foolishness. It's the good life: high salaries, low productivity."
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian agreed.
"I think it is a waste of money. The hotels are not happy with it. The majority say it is not a good thing," he said. "I don't think the city of Niagara Falls should be in the business of funding private businesses. We are going to end it."
Councilman Bob Anderson has long been critical of Percy and the NTCC.
"It is nothing personal, because I did not create this gravy train," Anderson said. "Until there is some transparency and some dollars to spare, Mr. Percy gets nothing."
Since 2006, when Percy replaced David Rosenwasser as head of the tourism agency, this newspaper has documented his extravagant comings and goings, his utter contempt for the people he serves and the flamboyant lifestyle afforded by his six-figure salary in an impoverished city where the per capita income is just $18,446.
The NTCC had been getting by on a budget of roughly $3 million a year. That included 80 percent of the money collected by the city in bed tax from the hotels, $1 million from the city's share of the Seneca Niagara Casino revenue and $1 million from the state-run USA Niagara Development Corp.
Percy has always maintained that what he does with the more than $18 million in public money he's received isn't anyone's business, since the NTCC is a private, not-for-profit corporation.
One thing that he did in spades was travel. During his tenure, Percy has averaged more than 40 trips a year away from Western New York.
In the first quarter of 2012 alone, Percy traveled to India, Great Britain, Las Vegas, Oregon and Albany. The four-day Indian jaunt – where Percy and his entourage stayed at the fabulous Four Seasons Mumbai Hotel -- cost the people of Niagara Falls $18,579. Additionally, tens of thousands were spent on nightclub cover charges, liquor, dinners, tuxedo rentals and a whopping $18,736 in bills for "massage therapists."
Percy was quick to point out that the massages weren't for him, but for potential bus tour operators who had shown some interest in possibly one day making the trip to Niagara Falls.
He's flown first class to Europe and Asia and the Indian subcontinent, stayed in luxury hotels like the Ritz Carlton and Hyatt Regency, along with famous places like Claridge's in London, the Taj Palace in New Delhi, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, and the Carlyle in New York City.
One Continental Airlines flight for Percy was booked at the estimated cost of around $4,600 for first class tickets. His room rate at the Four Seasons Mumbai was $634 per night. And Percy has often run up dinner tabs in excess of $1,000, and once bragged about a $7,000 bill for a banquet he hosted at taxpayer expense.
When asked by the Niagara Gazette whether he would be willing to make public all receipts and expenditures upon returning from one of his India trips, Percy declined, saying he's concerned some would over-scrutinize the receipts and try to create controversy that isn't there.
"I've been hired to produce positive results for this destination and want to do that effectively," he said. "I don't need to be criticized by every little receipt that is provided."
That people had been coming to see Niagara Falls for more than 300 years prior to Percy's installation as head of the NTCC, and that the falls themselves were written about by authors as diverse as Louis Hennepin, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde and Jack London in the centuries prior to his arrival, seem lost on Percy.
To hear him tell it, before he got here Niagara Falls was virtually unknown around the world.
In 2009, he oversaw construction of a $2.4 million Visitor's Center that he said would be a "hub of information showcasing county attractions." What it actually was, and is, is a place where tourists can book tours and hotel rooms, as well as buy souvenirs, functions that have been traditionally served by the private, for-profit tourism industry here.
"It's wonderful to have a new facility, that really elevates the destination, elevates the image and allows us to portray that to visitors, so when they come in they will feel truly welcome," Percy said when the 8,400-square-foot facility opened its doors. "It's great to finally have a permanent state-of-the-art facility that we have been lacking. It's been a deficit, a void for quite some time."
While Percy has never been able to prove successfully that his agency's efforts have ever resulted in a single tourist coming to Niagara Falls who wouldn't have come anyway, there is a mountain of evidence to show that the NTCC took as much money from those who did come as humanly possible.
Sources told the Reporter that the NTCC's commission on tour and hotel room sales was a whopping 40 percent, half of which went to the agency and the other half to the sales staff it employs.
In addition to gouging the hoteliers and tour operators, Percy also got into the advertising sales business, printing up 750,000 copies of a 60-page "Official Visitor Guide" and selling ads to the very people the NTCC is receiving tax money to represent for as much as $3,000 per quarter page.
If Percy loses his $121,000 job, his $25,000 per year incentive bonus, and more than $70,000 personal travel and expense allowance, he is fortunate at least in that he lives in a two-income household. His domestic partner Russell Hurlburt is a successful Niagara Frontier hairdresser, and may be able to pick up some of the slack.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||