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Niagara Falls Enters a New Tourist Season in a Leadership Slump;
Several Key Tourism Execs Leave

By Gail Franklin, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Apr. 22--Niagara Falls will enter the new tourist season in a leadership slump.

Since last season, the county's top tourism pitchman has left.

The man who headed the downtown hotel and business associations had to step down.

The city conference center manager is gone.

The top two executives at the Seneca Niagara Casino quit.

The head of the countywide Chamber of Commerce is leaving next month.

And the state's local parks spokesman was fired.

"We should feel badly. When people of quality leave, the industry is weakened," said Christopher M. Glynn, president of the Maid of the Mist. "It seems like just when someone good comes in, they leave."

Local officials say the departures are somewhat common in the industry and the region, but that the loss of so many high-profile leaders in a short amount of time could hamper tourism and economic development in a city that already has seen more than its share of losses.

For Glynn, it mirrors what he has seen in the city's population, which has been cut in half, to about 50,000, during the last half century.

Glynn said the turnover may have economic consequences in a city that has seen better times, and indicative of the overall population loss in the region.

"It's hard to replace people because there are a lot of opportunities elsewhere, so you're not always getting the best and brightest and that unfortunate," Glynn said.

Remaining tourism leaders told The Buffalo News last week that it's too early to gauge the impact of so many changes at the top. They said the void creates new opportunities for new leadership and ideas, and may force a wide array of interest groups to look at how tourism operates in the region's international destination.

The exodus started last spring, when David Rosenwasser, a highly respected visionary, left his post as president and chief executive officer of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., citing funding woes and political hurdles.

More recently, a rash of leaders have stepped down from their posts for reasons ranging from illness to opportunities in other parts of the country.

When there's change at the top, it's important to make sure relationships between tourismrelated organizations aren't lost, said John Percy, who replaced Rosenwasser last year as the new head of the NTCC.

He said one example is Allen James, a local figure who worked with tourism leaders, but was fired this month as local spokesman of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

James, a casualty of the change in gubernatorial administrations, worked at Niagara Falls State Park. State parks officials have not said whether his position will be filled, or has been cut.

Percy said James served on many committees as a valuable liaison between the state and local tourism-related groups, an important link that should remain, and will now need to be rebuilt.

Tourism frustrations

Rosenwasser, who took the helm of the countywide tourism promotion agency in 2003, left last spring for a similar job in Missouri.

The outspoken leader had been optimistic about what tourism could become in Niagara County, but decided to resign after about half the agency's funding was in limbo for two years as the state's political leaders haggled over how to disburse local casino revenue.

Rosenwasser also said politics often served as a barrier.

"There is a strong undertow of certain interests that would happily not see change in the industry," he said. "Personal agendas took priority over what was good for the area, some relating to politics."

Percy, who was the vice president of sales and marketing at the office for three years, replaced Rosenwasser in a fairly seamless transition.

Due to funding, however, the agency decided not to replace Percy and combined the top two positions into one.

Percy said it's important that the leaders of the numerous groups and stakeholders in the city's tourism arena be aware of each other's missions so they can work together and make sure efforts aren't duplicated.

He admitted it's something that's been difficult to do himself.

Percy said he has been so busy he hasn't had time to meet yet with Brian Hansberry, the new president and CEO of the Seneca Gaming Corp.

Hansberry replaced the former head of the corporation, John Pasqualoni, who left abruptly and without explanation in February.

Pasqualoni was part of the team of casino professionals that opened Seneca Niagara Casino in 100 days in 2002.

He was brought here by Seneca Gaming's first chief executive, G. Michael "Mickey" Brown, the New Jersey casino executive who started the Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut.

Pasqualoni replaced Brown as CEO in 2005, but announced a year ago that he would retire after the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel was completed. He changed his mind after a concerted effort by board members to keep him, but then changed his mind again in February after what sources told The Buffalo News was a dispute with tribal leaders.

He previously worked in management positions for Foxwoods as well as casinos in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, the Bahamas and Louisiana and was a partner at Top Gun Gaming, a slot machine maker.

Pasqualoni, along with Joseph D'Amato, the former chief operating officer who resigned at the same time, have since both been hired by the developer of a proposed $360 million casino and resort in Pennsylvania's Poconos Mountains.

Holes left downtown

David Fleck, the head of the Downtown Hotel and Motel Association and vice chairman of the Niagara Falls Downtown Business Association, may not be a nationally known tourism figure but has been a valuable local leader for many years.

He had to step down from his roles in local associations early this year due to illness, but said he doesn't want to stay away for too long.

Meanwhile, the hotel and motel association has elected its vice chairman Joseph Sanelli, general manager of the Sheraton Four Points.

The downtown business association has not yet replaced Fleck, and is also dealing with the loss of its chairman, John Faso, the former general manager of the Conference Center Niagara Falls.

Faso was director of event services with the Buffalo Sabres before coming back to his hometown to manage the new $19 million state-owned conference center in 2004.

The state has a contract with Sentry Hospitality to manage the facility on Third Street, and no statement has been issued to explain why Faso unexpectedly left.

William Jackson, Sentry's executive vice president, was manager of the conference center when it first opened and is Faso's temporary replacement.

"He left to pursue other interests," said Jackson, who lives in Atlanta, but will stay locally until a replacement is found.

The center has more than doubled its bookings since it opened, and Faso told The News in December that he expected the 32,000-square-foot events center, ballroom and 15 meeting rooms to accommodate 275 events or conferences this year. He said that would mean more than 17,000 rooms already booked for local hoteliers.

When contacted, Faso confirmed he had left Sentry Hospitality in February but declined to comment further.

Chamber shakeup

Thomas Kraus, president and chief executive officer of the USA Niagara Chamber of Commerce, recently announced his resignation, effective May 4, but said his reasons are simple.

He has been hired as president of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, a city on the Atlantic Ocean about 12 miles from Dover, N.H., where Kraus grew up.

"It's a decision that my wife and I made based purely on personal and family considerations," Kraus said. "Now that I have an 18-month-old daughter, she deserves to be near her grandparents."

Kraus was hired two years ago after having worked for seven years on the staff of then-Assembly Minority Leader Charles H. Nesbitt, an Albion Republican.

He also serves on the county's Industrial Development Agency board of directors, a seat that the County Legislature will have to fill.

John Benoit, chairman of the Chamber board, had no word last week on how a replacement will be found.

"Is it difficult when we lose good people? Of course it is," said Tricia Mezhir, general manager of the Comfort Inn on Prospect Street. "Will it have an effect? I'd like to think not. We have capable people to move in to those places of leadership."

Mezhir is a leader in the downtown's hotel and motel and business associations. She said the goal when leaders must be replaced should be to do so as seamlessly as possible.

"It did seem to hit all at once, but I don't think it's terribly unusual for the industry," Mezhir said.

Mezhir and Percy both admitted Niagara Falls has a lot of stakeholder groups and agencies involved in the city's tourism industry, and, as their leaders change, communication becomes vital.

"You just try to keep all the players involved," Percy said. "If they're replaced, then keeping them in the loop and making sure everyone is on the same page [is important] because we sometimes get caught up in our own world."

He said he sees a bright side to the potential influx of some new local leaders.

"Change isn't always bad. Sometimes it's good," he said. "It allows you step back and regroup, and pinpoint what needs to be done so you can move forward."

gfranklin@buffnews.com

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

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