Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. President and CEO John Percy has been extremely visible around Niagara County of late, telling the Lockport City Council and the Niagara Falls Tourism Advisory Committee about the great job he's doing to promote the region as a tourist mecca and world class destination.
But to those involved in the tourist industry here, people who actually make their living from the as many as 14 million visitors who come to see the mighty cataracts each year, Percy and the organization he runs are all but useless. As often as not, his ham-fisted attempts to sell tours himself, the highly selective process he uses to direct visitors to hotels and his lavish spending habits result in a rudderless organization that can often seem at cross purposes, operating at odds with itself.
And for Niagara Falls, whose residents contribute the bulk of Percy's $3 million annual operating budget, the NTCC is seen as a useless extravagance in a city where streets consist mostly of patched potholes and whole neighborhoods consist of crumbling, abandoned buildings.
Most recently, Percy's opposition to the elimination of the Robert Moses Parkway -- which cuts off access between the city and the upper and lower Niagara River -- has drawn criticism.
Mayor Paul Dyster and the Niagara Falls City Council have lobbied for the removal of the roadway, and tens of thousands of residents have signed petitions asking the state to condemn it. In addition to blocking waterfront access, they have raised environmental concerns, as well as security issues relating to the roadway's proximity to the power project here.
Percy, however, is a vocal proponent of the parkway, and has been vocal in his role as a board member of the Robert Moses Parkway Preservation Committee.
When questioned about it by city tourism board member Lisa Vitello, Percy defended his stance. "That parkway plays a major line to our attractions north of us," he said. "We feel it would be detrimental to shut off that major link."
NTCC Board of Directors Chairwoman Tricia Mezhir, who many say is angling behind the scenes for Percy's job, said it was important to keep tourists from driving on or seeing Main Street as they ventured northward, despite the city's $42 million court house project and other efforts to breathe new life into the moribund business district.
"Those streets are not in the best condition," she said.
Since two-thirds of the NTCC budget is derived from the city bed tax and the Niagara Falls share of the Seneca-Niagara Casino revenue, Vitello told Percy that taking a position opposite to that of the taxpayers and elected officials might be less than prudent.
"It would be a good idea not to take a side on such a hot-button issue since you represent all of us," she said. City Councilman Sam Fruscione underscored Vitello's sentiment.
"We're supporting these people to the tune of $2 million a year and they're laughing in our faces," he told the Reporter. "It's time for the people of Niagara Falls to take back control of the tourism industry here."
In July, Percy's tour-selling business was shut down by the city after it was discovered that the state employees manning the counters at the agency's "welcome center" on Rainbow Boulevard lacked the proper licenses to sell tours. And the state's efforts to pull tourists out of the city and into the state park boiled over in an escalating battle between park's workers and employees of downtown businessman Frank Parlato, who operates a parking lot, food court, and tour and souvenir sales operation at his One Niagara Building, just outside the park.
"Frederick Law Olmsted never meant to turn the Niagara Reservation into a giant parking lot," Parlato said, referring to the park's legendary architect. "The park itself was always meant to be a place where visitors could commune with nature and experience the falls themselves and not have to listen to hucksters with bullhorns trying to make a buck." Indeed, much of the state's operation -- both inside the park and at the plush offices of the NTCC -- seems to be directed at having tourists spend as little time as possible in the city, Parlato said.
"They run them through the money machine that is the park, with parking, souvenirs, refreshments and their own attractions, then put them on the Robert Moses to go up to the fort and to something called the Wine Trail," he laughed. "The effort involved in keeping them out of the city is truly extraordinary."
Another bone of contention arose when Percy and a companion took an extended trip to India, ostensibly to drum up tourism. On his return, he bragged to the press that he and his party were "treated like kings" on the sub-continent, but steadfastly refused to say how much the expedition had cost the taxpayers.
One prominent Indian restaurant and hotel owner, asked whether Percy's journey had benefited his business, responded with a question of his own.
"Who is John Percy?" he asked.
Indeed. Even the state doesn't seem to know who he is or what his agency is supposed to be doing. The NTCC suffered a major public humiliation two months ago when Majestic Tours, a tourism operation owned by Doreen O'Connor, outbid the NTCC with its proposal to operate the tourist information centers at the Clarence and Angola rest stops along the New York State Thruway. It marked the first time in 30 years that a private company has won the contract.
Majestic will now have the opportunity to sell tours and hotel rooms on a commission basis to visitors who haven't made such arrangements before getting in their cars.
"This is absolutely unbelievable," state Sen. George Maziarz told the Reporter. "You've got a state agency, one that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers, and they can't even manage to outbid a private company on a contract awarded by another state agency? I don't know what they're doing over there and I don't think they do either."
Many tourism professionals contacted by the Reporter expressed similar doubts, especially after Percy contended that his agency actually lost money running the information booths.
"It's comical on quite a number of levels," said one local tourism veteran, who asked not to be identified. "The NTCC is so badly run that it can't even turn a profit on the sale of hotel rooms and tours, which have driven the tourism industry here for 100 years."
What Percy seems to be best at is convincing gullible politicians to give him more money. Recently, he appeared before the Niagara Falls City Council in order to justify the NTCC's receipt of $1 million annually from the city's share of the Seneca Niagara Casino payment, in addition to 100 percent of the money collected by the city through the hotel bed tax.
While he claimed that hotel occupancy had risen by 7.6 percent in 2007 from 2006, he failed to mention that five downtown hotels had closed, and none of the deep thinkers on the Council thought to ask why, if that many more tourists were renting rooms here, the amount collected in bed tax remained virtually unchanged.
The NTCC was founded by the state in 2003 in order to replace the former Niagara Falls Convention and Visitor's Bureau and the county tourism operation, ineffective agencies that had often been at odds with one another.
Under the able direction of David Rosenwasser, a tourism professional who brought new ideas and methods into the entrenched and often parochial operation here, the NTCC initially thrived. But like many professionals, Rosenwasser found himself frustrated by the political climate in Niagara Falls, particularly the dictatorial regime of former mayor Vince Anello, who refused to release funds earmarked for the agency.
Rosenwasser eventually left his position because of the instability, and Percy, a longtime political hack, was given the job.
It is a job to which he is spectacularly unsuited. While the city of Niagara Falls lacks many things, it is certainly supplied to overabundance with petty politicians presiding over their fiefdoms, and defending their turf at all costs, particularly when those costs are borne by the taxpayer.