COLUMN: Support needs to bleed beyond political affiliation

the Seneca County Board of Supervisors has the opportunity to “make right” on a nearly decade-old commitment.

In 2009 when the board decided to contract with the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce to be its lead tourism promotion agency — or TPA — it served as an honest admission that the board was not fit to be the sole promoters of all-things Seneca County.

In 2016, supervisors performed their due-diligence — passing a local law that would ensure that tourism promotion wouldn’t cost county taxpayers. It meant that funding for the TPA would be derived from Occupancy Tax collection, or “room tax” as it’s called by supervisors.

This room tax, paid for by tourists — or those staying at hotels in Seneca County — is reinvested in Seneca County by the Chamber, acting as the designated TPA.

All of these things are great because they’re an acknowledgment of how important tourism is in Seneca County. That said, parts of the present-day board seem to lack confidence in the Chamber.

It’s strange, because the data is behind the organization and there shouldn’t be a lack of confidence.

During their debate last week at the Planning, Development, Agriculture & Tourism Committee meeting, the supervisors sought ways to use those legally bound funds for other purposes. They inquired about methods of regulating vacation rentals and the possibility of using some of the funds for a capital-level expenditure in sewer expansion.

Make no mistake, the county does get to keep a portion of the funds collected from room tax to cover “administrative effort.” However, nowhere in the description of applicable uses for those funds do the words supervisors’ discretion, capital improvements, or most-specifically “sewer expansion” appear.

Some supervisors seemed confused by the terms of use tied to those funds. But the explanation is neither long, nor complicated. Unless there is a lack of understanding about what tourism promotion is, then there should be no confusion about how the funds can be used.

So, what piqued the board’s sudden interest in this revenue stream that has historically been blocked off from general use? Well, more of it. To be precise, a projected increase from $263,000 collected in 2016 to $450,000 projected in 2018. Del Lago Resort & Casino’s 205-room hotel helped the cause, but it wasn’t the first time a major increase had been seen. Between 2013 and ’15, room tax revenue increased $40,000.

The Planning, Development, Agriculture & Tourism Committee did vote unanimously to approve allocating 90 percent of the room tax revenue to the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber’s request for a flat 90 percent was not out of step with historical averages.

The simple fact is that the county has never given the Chamber less than 91 percent of the room tax revenue generated since 2013. These funds — aimed to be used for visitors through tourism promotion — have very limited effective use. The Chamber outlined all of the expenses and ways it would use the money to better position Seneca County.

Make no mistake, the Chamber of Commerce is the only entity in Seneca County with the physical resources, time or knowledge to promote the county the right way. Independent businesses can do it themselves, but they deserve to have the organizational strength behind them getting people here.

The Chamber of Commerce, even if the highest of forecasts come true, will still be operating at a monetary disadvantage. As Chamber CEO Jeff Shipley pointed out, the Chamber is competing for visitors who can choose Ontario, Cayuga, Wayne, Yates, Schuyler and every other county in the region.

The Chamber has done remarkably well in promoting the county. By the numbers, Seneca County has experienced year-after-year increases in spending among those ultra- valuable tourists.

My problem is that the supervisors showed, through their discussion on the topic, how little they know about modern marketing. Despite the fact that they were presented with a dollar-by-dollar breakdown of how the money remitted to the Chamber in 2018 would be spent, some couldn’t imagine why different pieces cost what they did.

The simple rebuttal: Modern marketing is diverse, complicated, time-consuming and ever-expanding. The expectation is that, as an entity, you present yourself everywhere — on every platform and inside every publication — so that you reach as many people as possible.

The numbers support the Chamber, and the Board of Supervisors should too, as fully as possible.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times on December 5th, 2017.

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