Schenectady County leaders are largely supportive of the legislature’s proposal to create a dedicated tourism bureau to capitalize on the local boom in hotels and entertainment options.
With the Rivers Casino & Resort slated to open early next year along Erie Boulevard and multiple hotels being built on the Mohawk Harbor site and in the surrounding area, those leading the initiative said the timing is right for the county to create a dedicated tourism bureau.
“Where we are in terms of tourism promotions has changed fairly dramatically in the county, even over the last year or two,” said County Legislator Gary Hughes, who is sponsoring the resolution to create the organization.
The Schenectady County Tourism and Visitors Bureau would be a non-profit corporation that would exist separately from the county legislature, though the legislature would maintain oversight of the bureau’s activity and select its leadership.
The bureau would be funded by the county’s bed tax on hotels and motels, revenue from which is expected to increase with the opening of additional hotels within the next year. Nearly $400,000 is set aside in the 2017 budget to cover startup costs for the entity.
The legislature will vote Tuesday whether to officially approve the new bureau.
The leadership of the county’s tourism promotion efforts has changed hands multiple times prior to the proposal of the dedicated bureau. Most recently, the Schenectady County Convention and Visitors Bureau was operated out of Proctors as the county’s designated promotion agency.
Now, even as the Proctors operation was making progress in luring conventions and travelers to the area, the operation, also known as Visit Schenectady, will begin to shut down.
Visit Schenectady has one full-time employee and one part-time employee. The organization is funded by Empire State Development, I Love New York and the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority. In addition, Proctors provided thousands of dollars’ worth of in-kind services through printing, tech support, grant writing and more.
Since its creation, the organization has created a promotional video, social media accounts and guides to the city, including one booklet it printed this month. Visit Schenectady has also been hosting quarterly tours to attract event planners from around the state and has 30 people scheduled to attend the October tour.
“We were prepared to do a good job with this,” said Proctors CEO Philip Morris. “If the county decides it can do better, that’s fine. And they might very well do better.”
The county’s promotion agreement with Proctors expires at the end of the calendar year, Hughes said, adding that he feels the expansion in development locally means a dedicated arts organization is no longer sufficient for leading tourism efforts.
“Prior to the casino and hotels, I thought Proctors made a lot of sense,” he said. Now, Hughes said, it seems appropriate for the county legislature to lead the effort in bringing members of the local tourism and entertainment industries together.
Proctors is still the marketing agency of the Capital-Saratoga Tourism Region, a six-county organization promoting area events. It will continue work with that group, Morris said, and Talia Cass, who was hired as the tourism and convention manager at Proctors, will remain on board.
Following formation of the new entity, bureau leaders will decide what to do with the website, social media accounts and other promotional material Visit Schenectady had created, said Joe McQueen, Schenectady County spokesman.
Chris Gardner, the county’s attorney, drafted proposed bylaws for the bureau. He said the county would provide some oversight, but the organization “would not be part of the county government, per se.”
Instead, it would be led by a board of directors consisting of 15 members, all selected by the legislature. The legislature’s chairman, vice-chair, deputy chair, majority leader and minority leader would each get to appoint one member to the board, according to the proposed bylaws. The other 10 directors would be selected by the full county legislature.
The board of directors would require representatives be chosen from various fields of the entertainment industry, based on the proposed bylaws. For example, two directors would need to come from a larger hotel in the county and one would be from a smaller hotel, one would be from an event hall, like Proctors, one director would be a representative from the casino, one would be from a restaurant and so forth.
The directors would be unpaid and elected to serve a four-year term, with no limits on how many terms they can be selected for.
In addition to the board of directors, the bureau would employ three full-time workers to start, said County Manager Kathleen Rooney. Two would be focused on marketing and outreach to draw tourists and conventions, while one would be an office manager who would handle day-to-day responsibilities.
Funding for the non-profit would be covered entirely by the county’s existing bed tax on hotels and motels. County leaders are proposing to raise that tax from 4 percent to 5 percent, which Hughes said is still below the tax used in Albany County and Saratoga Springs.
Since most of the new hotels won’t open until 2017 and start-up funding is required, the county’s proposed budget for next year allocates nearly $392,000 for the anticipated first-year needs of the organization.
During last Monday night’s County Legislature meeting, several legislators expressed support for the idea, and encouraged Hughes and others leading the proposal to gather possible stakeholders as early as possible to ensure they’re invested in the project.
Given the tendency for many organizations to book conventions and events years in advance, Hughes said it’s important to move quickly to establish the county’s bureau to maximize its developments.
“One of the reasons to do this now is if we don’t become more aggressive and cooperative, we run the risk of having a lot of attractions and a lot of hotel rooms, and not as much occupancy as we might like to have,” Hughes said.
Reach Gazette reporter Brett Samuels at 395-3113, [email protected] or @Brett_Samuels27 on Twitter.