New state tourism report shows big gains for NY, but little in Orleans

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 8 August 2013 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – Fishing is Orleans County’s biggest tourism draw, generating about $12 million of the $23 million tourism pie. The photo shows an angler at Point Breeze.

A new report about tourism dollars state-wide and per county shows New York is on an upswing growing 6.2 percent for $92 billion in visitor spending in 2012 , following an 8.3 percent gain in 2011.

However, Orleans County’s revenue barely budged, going from $21.01 million in 2011 to $21.13 million in 2012, a 0.1 percent increase, according to the state report prepared by Tourism Economics.

Orleans ranks at the very bottom state-wide among 62 counties for visitor spending. Tourism represents one of the best options for the county to stir business activity for many merchants. The visitor spending also represents outside money and isn’t merely redistributing existing dollars in the community. We should make growing tourism revenue a top priority for the county.

I think Orleans could do much better, given our dynamic and world-class fishery, our historic and agricultural assets, and our location near Rochester, Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

I strongly recommend the county work to develop a Sandstone Trail featuring our best sandstone structures, including the 68-foot-high Civil War memorial in Mount Albion Cemetery.

I think there are two factors that hurt us. We don’t have a chain hotel and many potential guests won’t consider a stay-over without a room at an established chain. County officials have tried for years to make the case for a small hotel to set up here. That would keep more visitors in the county longer. We draw people for day trips, but then the majority have to sleep in another county.

The outside counties use what could be our “bed tax,” money that could be directed to more promotion of our attractions. Genesee County boasts more than 1,000 hotel rooms. Many Orleans visitors end up staying in Batavia hotels. Genesee also has Darien Lake Theme Park and the Thruway corridor that draw mobs of people into their county.

Genesee takes in about $400,000 in bed tax to promote its tourism assets. That’s about 10 times what Orleans collects. (The bed tax is a 4 percent tax on lodging – hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.)

Genesee saw its visitor spending jump 9.4 percent last year, from $81.9 million to $89.6 million. That tourism spending means more in sales tax, which can help offset property taxes.

We may not be able to sway a Holiday Inn Express-type hotel to open in Orleans anytime soon. The Orleans Economic Development Agency commissioned a study a few years ago, and the consultants found then there weren’t enough people and tourists to warrant a small hotel.

A second factor hurting our tourism numbers is a shortage of staff working to promote the county’s resources. The county is sorely understaffed in its tourism department. Wayne Hale is the tourism director. He also manages the Marine Park and is the county’s Planning Department director. Last year he semi-retired, but is still juggling three big jobs in a part-time role.

If the county devoted more resources to heritage tourism, it could create a package featuring the historic churches, including a stop at Christ Church in Albion, which has a 150-year-old pipe organ.

Genesee has three full-time people devoted to tourism promotion.

“Wayne has been instrumental through the years,” said Sharon Narburgh, owner of Narby’s Superette and Tackle at Point Breeze. “He has done a hell of a job, but there is only so much time in the day.”

Narburgh credited the county for creating a part-time fishing coordinator position about two decades ago. Mike Waterhouse is currently serving in the role. Narburgh said the county needs more people working on tourism promotion, helping to develop a plan for drawing more people to the county, and keeping them here longer.

“You need a person to coordinate all of this,” she said. “Right now we don’t have the people to do things the way they need to be done.”

Genesee is a bigger county than Orleans, about 60,000 people compared to the 42,000 people here. Genesee is about 1.5 times more populous, but they are bringing in four times the tourism spending.

Wyoming County would make for a better comparison. I would assume Orleans would draw more in visitor spending because Wyoming seems more remote. Both counties have about 42,000 people. We also have Lake Ontario, the Erie Canal, and a wealth of Medina sandstone and architectural wonders.

But Wyoming generates far more in visitor spending, $35.7 million in 2012 compared to the $23.1 million in Orleans. Our local government leaders should commit the needed resources to tourism promotion. It’s an investment that would bear big returns.