By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Local officials encouraged a New York state parks executive on Wednesday to push for additional funding to help answer an age-old question - how many people actually visit Niagara Falls State Park in a given year?
During a meeting with state parks Deputy Commissioner Tom Alworth, representatives from the state parks commission for the western region suggested Albany should consider investing in what some commissioners described as a long-overdue visitor analysis at the park.
"That's basic research," said outgoing Commissioner Harvey Albond, a long-time advocate for the proposed analysis.
Fellow Commissioner Jerry Mosey agreed, saying having such information would be helpful in evaluating park operations.
"Without that data, we really can't make valid evaluations on anything," he said.
While state parks does collect visitor data each year, the figures are based largely on estimates from paid attendance, parking lot usage and patron counts at the Niagara Falls visitor center.
During the last fiscal year ending March 31, for example, the number of visitors to the state park in the Falls was calculated at 8.7 million, about the same as the previous year, according to state parks Director Ron Peters. Also last year, Peters said the park experienced an 8 percent increase in revenue.
Due to the use of estimates, the state park visitation rates have been subject to debate for many years. Local officials have often argued that having more accurate visitor numbers would help state parks, the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and other tourism industry partners strengthen marketing strategies and make better use of advertising dollars.
Peters said the process of obtaining more accurate data is made more difficult by the physical makeup of the park itself, which promotes - as he noted it should - free flowing pedestrian traffic in and out. As a result, he said, it is often difficult to consistently and accurately determine the number of visitors.
To improve visitor counts, Peters said state parks likely would have to partner with a private firm specializing in that type of analysis as it did a few years ago when it conducted a vehicle and pedestrian traffic assessment to guide a landscape design plan for the park.
Alworth, who serves as one of the chief deputies to New York State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey, indicated that he was inclined to support such a project noting that obtaining baseline visitor data is important not only in the Falls but to the statewide parks system as a whole.
Mark Thomas, director of the New York State Parks western district, said his office is currently working through the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council in an effort to secure state funding through Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" initiative for tourism research. Thomas said research is one of the top priorities under the tourism component of Cuomo's effort to distribute state dollars through the council for various projects in Western New York.
Thomas said he too believes having more accurate visitor information would allow state parks and its partners to improve their marketing strategies and make better use of their advertising dollars.
"I believe it is a necessary investment," Thomas said.
In other matters, the commission:
• recognized Albond for his 15 years of service. During Wednesday's meeting, Albond said he received word from the state that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has nominated an individual to replace him on the commission, pending final approval by the state Senate. In his closing remarks, Albond, who was originally appointed under former Gov. George Pataki's administration, thanked state parks staff members for their support and their work throughout his tenure. He also vowed to continue to remain appreciative of the staff and, as he feels necessary, both a "friend" and "critic" of state parks as a whole.
"In the immortal words of Richard Nixon, you won't have me to kick around anymore," Albond quipped.
"I have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to serve on this commission," he added.