Moving Niagara Falls Forward: Tale of Two Tourism Plans

Kenny Thompkins, the freshman Niagara Falls council member, has led the charge to eliminate health insurance for future council members.

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By Kenny Tompkins;
Niagara Falls City Councilman

I’ve learned as a city councilman that it’s important to set the record straight as often as possible. I’m a firm believer in transparency, which is why I am addressing the online story that emerged suggesting a connection between the American Niagara Hospitality (ANH) project and my move to table the resolution on the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation (NTCC) contract. There is no connection between the two, as you can see from the following details that emerged from the May 1 council meeting.

American Niagara Hospitality (ANH)

Mr. DiCienzo’s (ANH) appearance before the council was to show the city leadership his plans for a $70 million expansion of the Sheraton at the Falls to include new suites and an indoor water park. This would take place on his existing property and another section already agreed upon with the city. For those not familiar, this property is located on Third Street, across from the casino. Mr. DiCienzo has also brought Starbucks, Rainforest Café, and TGI Fridays to this property. The purpose of this presentation was both to share his plans as well as ask for council and administration support in asking the state for incentives similar to those offered to other developers.

During his presentation, I asked Mr. DiCienzo more about his plans. Currently, ANH employs almost 800 people. The expansion would add an additional 150 jobs, making ANH one the city’s larger employers. He is willing to invest money in this project as it would significantly increase hotel occupancy rates during the off season. ANH has a solid track record of following through with their projects, as witnessed not only here in our city, but in Ontario as well. If you’ve ever visited this hotel, you can see the investment already made with the Reef Beach Club and Pool, as well as the overall accommodations.

I was taken aback that one of my council colleagues would question this developer’s intentions. Should we not be encouraging this level of private development in the city? This is a shovel ready project, with a developer who has required little state aid in the past. I know there have been discussions since before I was elected to council about another indoor water park to be named “Wonderfalls”; this park has long been slated to be built in the remaining sections of the former Rainbow Centre. In the past two years, I have yet to see any movement on this project.

However, should this second indoor water park emerge, I don’t believe this would impact either property’s ability to maintain high occupancy rates, even during the off season. Just look across the way to Niagara Falls, Ontario. There are three water parks within a five-mile radius and they all appear to be prospering. In Wisconsin Dells, there are over 20 waterparks. The Pocono Mountain region is home to at least six waterparks. These are regions with climates not much different from ours and they are thriving—and they don’t have the 8th wonder of the world in their backyards!

As a council member, I support Mr. DiCienzo and ANH’s plans to expand the current property and add an offering that will increase tourism all year. I encourage my fellow council colleagues to work in unison to get this project the support needed.

Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation (NTCC)

My recommendation to table the resolution to continue to support NTCC was made based on a need to ensure as a city, we’re getting the most value from this relationship. The people I’ve met there are good people who do look to attract new visitors to our city. However, I believe they are missing some key opportunities that could help us more in the off season months.

I did some research on hotel occupancy rates. Certainly during the summer months, hotel rooms are filled. Let’s be honest—summer in Niagara Falls is a pretty easy sell. What we need is more emphasis on the fall, spring, and winter months. Niagara Falls during the winter is particularly majestic when it’s frozen. There are opportunities to attract conferences, sports (think college hoops and hockey at NU), and fishing enthusiasts during these months. We should be seeing more action all year-round for the contribution we make to the NTCC.

The other major concern I have with the current NTCC plan is their limited inclusion of local businesses in their promotions. In particular, they publish a tourism guide that lists local attractions, restaurants, shops, and more. However, the minimum cost for an ad is $3250. This is cost prohibitive for a small business owner who could benefit from an influx of tourism dollars. Contrast this to Erie, PA. Their chamber publishes a similar area guide in which for $250, businesses can purchase a decent size ad and have 10 coupons which helps draw in more businesses. This is the type of opportunity that could draw business outside of the parks and state venues and down Third Street, Pine Avenue, Buffalo Avenue, Niagara Avenue, Main Street, and the other main thoroughfares within our city.

Remember, Niagara Falls is the single largest contributor to the NTCC. It is our responsibility as council members to ensure that they are providing us with a return on our investment and helping our city, and all of the businesses in it, to thrive. Therefore, I believe that before we renew this contract, it is imperative that we evaluate the NTCC’s plan to increase visitor traffic to this city outside of the summer months and be more inclusive of the mom and pop businesses that are the backbone of our city. As an elected official, it is my sworn obligation to perform due diligence and require accountability and transparency from any entity like NTCC that is paid to work on behalf of our city. Our residents deserve nothing less.

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