By DENISE A. RAYMO
---- — MALONE — Franklin County just about gutted its 2012 Tourism Office budget following the retirement of Director Neil Seymour.
Legislators may put some cash back in for 2013, but they are also watching a tug-of-war developing for tourism promotion — how best to increase it, who will shape it and who will control it in 2013 and beyond.
The issue takes on more importance because tourism has been a huge revenue generator and can become even more lucrative if the State Legislature approves a 5 percent bed tax the county wants established.
Tourism is under the umbrella of the Industrial Develop Agency Board of Directors, and the county has an annual contract with IDA to provide tourism services.
Recenty, after the county invited an out-of-county entity here to talk about hosting fishing-related events, an IDA Board member made an impassioned pitch to legislators on its successes and the office’s ability to continue handling the duties.
Franklin County spent $349,000 on tourism in 2011, but slashed the budget to $141,765 for 2012 following Seymour’s departure.
Legislators spent just enough to cover half of one staff person’s salary and to match the annual state-tourism allocation that Franklin County uses for advertising in North American cities to attract visitors.
The tourism budget in 2013 was tentatively increased by $75,000 to $216,765, in part because the state’s matching-fund allocation is larger and also because of two recommendations from County Manager and Budget Officer Thomas Leitz.
One idea awards $25,000 to FISHCAP, an initiative that the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce and Town Massena created as an economic-development tool to promote fishing in the St. Lawrence River Valley.
FISHCAP wants to partner with Franklin County on world-class tournaments to draw wealthy visitors to area lakes, rivers and streams.
But Paul Hogan, a member of the IDA Board, called the county rude for allocating money on paper to tourism-related efforts without discussing it with them first.
“Nobody came to us and talked to us,” he said. “FISHCAP is a program we have no knowledge of.”
Hogan said that if legislators would have asked the IDA for input, “we could assess the program and make a recommendation,” adding its office already promotes several fishing initiatives.
He said FISHCAP’s claim of hosting world-class events isn’t reflected on its website, which mentions a fire-department fishing tourney, an annual carp challenge and a Wounded Warriors fishing event.
“Five (tournaments) are hardly numerous and certainly not (reflective of) the fishing capital of the United States,” he said.
Leitz’s other budget recommendation is to spend $25,000 on a grant writer/consultant for agri-tourism business, where, for example, visitors from urban areas spend hands-on weekends or vacations working on a North Country farm to experience rural living.
Hogan said agri-business is a large draw in places like Argentine cattle ranches and sheep farms “with hundreds of people working for them” and where employees dress in gaucho costumes and other cultural garb to play up to tourists’ expectations.
But rural northern New York may not be the same kind of draw, he said, adding that even industry insiders say places considering agri-tourism should ask “do you have what it takes” before delving into such ventures.
Hogan compared the potential income from agri-tourism to existing golfing packages the Tourism Office promotes.
According to agency statistics, 5,643 golf packages were sold as of September, a 10 percent increase from last year.
The average cost is $250 per package and includes overnight lodging and two days of unlimited golf at the Malone Golf Club. The county pays $6,500 toward that program, a figure that is matched by state funds.
Every $1 spent on the golf packages, officials say, translates into $35 in sales-tax revenue to the county, so offering $25,000 toward agri-business “is a lot of money,” considering the golf promotion’s financial return, Hogan said.
Legislators responded, saying the 2013 budget is still a tentative spending plan and that no firm decisions have been made on how tourism dollars will be spent.
Complicating the issue is the County Legislature’s formation of a committee to study occupancy tax, which advocates creation of a 5 percent fee on overnight lodging.
The fund generated would be used only toward tourism promotion.
The State Legislature must authorize collection of such a fee, which some doubt would be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo if the proposal were to make it through both the State Senate and Assembly.
But the county is pursuing the idea anyway with hopes of having a local law written and adopted before the end of the year. With that timetable, Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) could offer up the proposal to their respective colleagues in the January legislative session.
Email Denise A. Raymo: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the first story in a three-part series on Franklin County's efforts to bring in more tourism dollars. In Sunday's Press-Republican, read about the latest news on a possible occupancy tax.