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Yates tourism: What's the best direction?

PENN YAN–A recently formed business group - the Finger Lakes Visitors Association - is seeking to supplant the Yates County Chamber of Commerce as the county’s major tourism promotion organization.
The association, headed by David Wegman of Rochester, has asked the Yates County Legislature for $150,000 in county tax funds and designation as the county’s tourism promotion agency.
That designation has been held by the Chamber of Commerce for nearly 10 years.
The Visitors Association, formed after several members left the chamber in a dispute over imposition of a room tax last year, says Yates County is falling behind its neighbors in tourism promotion.
“We need more events, more beds, more restaurants,” Wegman said.
Despite its request for public money, the Visitors Association has so far dodged questions about how many members it has and how much they pay in dues.
“I can’t talk to the specifics of memberships intelligently,” Wegman said.
Association Vice President Clifford S. Orr also said he doesn’t know how many members the group has.
The FLVA has told the county legislature that its members will raise $250,000 for tourism promotion in 2010 to add to the $150,000 it is seeking from the county.
The association’s main complaints about the Chamber of Commerce include:
• The chamber’s Web site is difficult for tourists to use.
• The chamber can’t focus specifically on tourism because it is involved in other ventures, such as promoting industry, selling health insurance, conducting driver safety courses and holding small business seminars.
“They are the Chamber of Commerce, not the Chamber of Tourism,” said Brian Zerges, a director of the new group. “But in this day and age most counties that are visionary have tourism organizations that are solely focused and run by those that are vested in tourism.”
The $150,000 sought by the Visitors Association is more than the county’s entire tourism budget for 2009. Yates County this year is spending $112,500 on tourism promotion.
More than half that—$57,238—goes to the Chamber of Commerce. The county also gives $42,762 to the Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Association and $12,500 to the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance.
Tourism promotion funding in other counties in the region for 2009 totals:
$220,000 in Seneca County, $285,000 in Schuyler County, $759,000 in Steuben County and $780,000 in Ontario County.
Mike Linehan, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said much of the $140,000 his agency spends on tourism promotion annually goes to the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance and Finger Lakes Wine County for regional marketing programs. The chamber receives about $70,000 in state funding and about $20,000 from private sector sources.
“We really believe in the regional concept, that by working together we achieve more,” Linehan said.
If the chamber loses any of its county funding, Linehan said, it would have to do less or figure out a way to maintain programming with fewer dollars.
“I don’t think any of our private sector businesses want to hear us say that we lost funding and can’t do as much for you,” he said.
Although the FLVA and the chamber are trying to maintain cordial relations in public, neither has offered the other seats on its board of directors in an attempt to merge tourism promotion efforts.
“I don’t think this needs to be a turf battle because there isn’t any turf to battle over,” Linehan said. “It’s our community. If they want to assist in tourism marketing and have new and creative ideas, we will listen, respond and act positively.”
Wegman makes it clear that the Finger Lakes Visitors Association would be willing to assume the chamber’s role in tourism promotion.
“I think it should be concentrated in one agency,” he said. “We would be comfortable taking over the chamber’s tourism efforts.”
Despite the public tension, the two groups keep talking. Wegman is serving on  chamber committee to develop a five-year tourism plan.
“I talk to Dave Wegman all the time,” Linehan said.
Legislature Chairman Robert Multer said he expects it will be November or December before the county designates an official tourism promotion agency for next year and decides whether to provide money to the FLVA.
“Either we take the money from the chamber and give it to them, which appears to be what they want, or we use tax funds,” Multer said. “This is a new organization. We don’t have any evidence of a record of how they are going to operate or what expertise they have. It would be a difficult decision to switch the TPA at this time.”
Another option, Multer said, is what he called a split decision—keep the chamber as the tourism promotion agency and give “a little money” to the Visitors Association.
“We do have some money in reserve from the lodging tax,” he said. “That certainly could be used.”
Multer said his personal opinion is that the Chamber of Commerce has done “a great job” for many years.”
Gene Pierce, a board member of the Chamber of Commerce and the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, said he would be “very concerned” if the FLVA received the designation as the county tourism promotion agency.
“It’s unclear whether they have the experience or the program to effectively use that money,” said Pierce, who is also president of Glenora Wine Cellars. “They have not had a great deal of experience in this arena.”
Pierce said is would be advisable for the chamber and the FLVA to reach out to each other in a cooperative manner.
“Perhaps the chamber does need to reach out to the tourism industry more than they have in the past with meetings, seminars, programs, etc.,” Pierce said.
In addition to tourism promotion, Yates County needs new attractions and facilities to draw more people, community leaders say.
“We have the people coming here, but we don’t have enough places for them to spend money,” said Steve Griffin, chief executive officer of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center. “Another hotel would be a high priority. Personally I think you could put four or five more hotels in this area easily and there would still be enough demand for them to be profitable.”
Griffin said there’s no reason why the chamber shouldn’t continue as the county’s tourism promotion agency.
“There should be a combined effort where you have the private businesses leading the charge for development and efforts on tourism and use the various resources such as the chamber, us and the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance,” he said. “I hope they can find common ground.”
Cynthia Kimble, president of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, said about half the counties in the region have an agency devoted exclusively to tourism promotion. The rest operate through organizations that also have other responsibilities, such as chambers of commerce.
Kimble declined to assess how the FLVA’s five-year plan differs from what the Chamber of Commerce already does.
“That’s not our role to compare plans,” she said. “We work hard to preserve the Finger Lakes brand and will continue to do that whoever the county names as TPA.”
According to a 2009 study by Oxford Economics, tourism supports 12.7 percent of the jobs in Yates County and provides 14.2 percent of the labor income. That makes the county more dependent on tourism than any other in the region.
One thing on which both sides agree: Landing the proposed Finger Lakes Cultural and Natural History Museum would be a major boost for tourism in Yates County. A 60-acre site at Keuka Lake State Park in Branchport is among the six locations still under consideration.

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