Niagara Gazette

January 7, 2007

LOOKING ELSEWHERE: Teacher conference passes on Cataract City

BY RICK FORGIONE/forgioner@gnnewspaper.com

An apparent lack of quality hotel rooms has eliminated the city’s chance to host the annual New York State United Teachers Conference, which would have pumped millions of dollars into the local economy.

Niagara Falls Teachers President Joseph Catalano has lobbied the past six years to bring the annual policy-making convention back to the Cataract City following a disappointing visit in 1999. That year, conference attendees were put off by some unfriendly treatment they say they received from local hotels and businesses.

“They swore they would never come back,” said Catalano, who serves on the conference committee.

Meanwhile, the 525,000-member union booked the summer gatherings alternately at New York City and Washington, D.C. — both of which proved to be too costly and not as convenient as organizers had hoped. Last year, the conference moved to the Rochester Riverside Convention Center and pumped an estimated $5 million into that city based on hotel rooms, meals, transportation, entertainment and shopping.

A few bad experiences in Rochester created an opening for Catalano to convince committee members to give Niagara Falls another look. During a recent tour of the Conference Center Niagara Falls and local restaurants, the city left a positive impression — enough to convince members to agree on bringing the convention here in 2009 and possibly again in 2012.

“Teachers from New York City love coming to Niagara Falls, they can’t believe how low the prices are for such quality food,” Catalano said, adding he took the group to the Como Restaurant during the tour and lunch for eight people came to about $60. “In New York, that might be the cost for one person’s dinner.”

More than 3,000 union members, including teachers, retirees, college faculty and health care professionals, were expected to attend the four-day conference in Niagara Falls. Catalano said that left him and officials from the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. trying to book around 2,500 hotel rooms in the city and nearby locations.

After exhausting all of the available “conference quality” rooms, another 220 accommodations were still needed, so rooms at hotels owned by the Seneca Nation of Indians were targeted. However, the Senecas, which have 604 rooms in the casino hotel alone, could not guarantee that much occupancy.

“We don’t book anything more than a year in advance,” said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for the Senecas. “We have a number of different uses for the space and we try to leave ourselves the ability to use our facilities to the best capability.”

Catalano said not being able to book the Seneca hotel rooms ended up being a deal breaker.

“We needed those rooms desperately,” Catalano said. “If the room quality in the city was higher, we could’ve hosted this conference every third year or possibly every other year. We lost out on millions.”

NTCC officials sent a letter to NYSUT leaders “respectfully dropping out” of the opportunity to host the 2009 conference.

“We really worked hard on this one, but just couldn’t meet the requirements,” said NTCC President John Percy. “It would’ve been a fantastic piece of business for everyone involved.”

While the number of hotel rooms in the city and surrounding area exceeds what was needed even without the Seneca space, Percy said the union was looking for a particular quality.

“Not all of our rooms met their standards.” Percy said, adding it was important to show the visitors a good time and plush accommodations. “They were very excited about returning. We don’t want to bring them back and disappoint them again.”

Percy said it’s still a possibility the city could end up hosting the conference in 2012 once more area hotels are up and running.

“I don’t think we’re completely off their radar screen,” he added.

Contact Rick Forgione at 282-2311, Ext. 2257.