By Denise Jewellfirstname.lastname@example.org
NIAGARA FALLS — A private tour company is pitching a plan to takeover and expand a trolley service that now shuttles tourists between Niagara Falls attractions and has been run by the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority for two years.
Doreen O’Connor, president of Niagara Majestic Tours, has approached the city’s Tourism Advisory Board with a proposal that she says would expand the trolley system to attractions throughout Niagara County for about the same cost as the current system.
“As a private company, I can go in and do it for less than the NFTA,” said O’Connor, who has pitched the plan to the advisory board and representatives from the region’s tourism industry.
O’Connor and Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. President John Percy have asked the city to consider a trial run in which the trolley service is expanded to attractions like Fort Niagara or the Erie Canal in Lockport.
Mayor Vince Anello said he plans to request proposals from companies to expand the trolley service. But expanding the service may meet opposition from other city leaders who would vote on the contract for the trolley service.
Councilman Sam Fruscione, who sits on the city’s Tourism Advisory Board, said he is adamantly opposed to Niagara Majestic’s proposal. Fruscione said city hotels and motels that pay an extra 1 percent bed tax to fund the existing trolley service shouldn’t foot the bill to drive tourists out of town.
“The other areas have to pay,” Fruscione said. “I feel that it’s not right to have the hotels and the motels of New York fund and provide a transportation service with a private company outside of the city limits.”
City to explore other options
Local officials have said the trolley has been a success since the NFTA first ran a trial program two years ago. Last year, the program received a dedicated funding source when the state Legislature approved an increase in the city’s hotel occupancy tax.
The green trolleys, which run hourly during the summer tourist season, shuttle visitors along a 3-mile loop. They are operated by the NFTA for about $11,000 a week. The NFTA, a state authority, also operates Metro bus lines.
The city is currently negotiating a new contract with the NFTA to provide the same shuttle service this summer.
Henry Sloma, vice chairman of the NFTA, said the agency is flexible in the service it could provide.
“I haven’t heard there’s a shift in direction,” said Sloma, who had seen a copy of O’Connor’s proposal. “I think we’ve had a good relationship with the city, and I think we provide a good service.”
Anello confirmed that the city is planning to use the NFTA for the trolley this summer, but said he is also exploring possibilities to expand the service or reduce its costs. He said he will soon put out a request for proposals (RFP) to determine what options the city has for the trolley service.
“I look forward to giving other agencies or businesses an opportunity to make presentations,” Anello said. “Since this looks like it’s going to expand further, I believe at some point we’re going to put out an RFP and really work on the process that would reduce the overall cost of the operation.”
O’Connor, who has served on the NTCC’s board of directors, said she has poured significant time and money into her proposal and that she should receive the contract for expanding the service.
She said she began developing the service after a meeting a meeting with area tour operators and former NTCC President and CEO David Rosenwasser. She later came back to Rosenwasser with a plan to run a “hop-on, hop-off” shuttle service that would serve destinations within the city of Niagara Falls and attractions north and east of the city.
O’Connor envisions providing audio tapes of local information that would gave tourists information about the local attractions as they rode the shuttles.
“We’re trying to tap into these people who come here for three hours,” O’Connor said. “I look at this as a fundamental change that will increase tourism, visitor stays and bed taxes.”
Percy and other area officials believe that expanding the trolley service to other attractions within the county could extend visitor stays in the region.
“It gives them more opportunity of things to do and they may consider staying another night,” Percy said. “Anytime you provide more to do they are going to stay longer. It will impact the restaurants and other activities.”
Majestic received memorandum from NTCC
O’Connor said she put down a $15,000 deposit to order a new bus and received a memorandum of understanding from the NTCC to provide the service after she first approached Rosenwasser with her proposal. At the time, O’Connor said, the NTCC had expected to give out the contract for the service.
Once the state legislation was passed to dedicate the additional hotel occupancy tax to the shuttle service, however, the city controlled both its funding and the contract for the service.
Rosenwasser has since left the position, but Percy confirmed last week that O’Connor’s company had received the tentative agreement under Rosenwasser. O’Connor has served on NTCC’s board of directors, but does not currently.
Robert Nicholas, president of Over the Falls Tours, said he was concerned about a potential conflict between O’Connor’s work for the NTCC and her proposal to operate the shuttle. O’Connor’s husband is also a county legislator. Nicholas attended the presentation that O’Connor gave to the city’s Tourism Advisory Board last week.
“I think it should go out to RFP. Every company, not only tour companies, but every charter company should have an opportunity to bid on that,” Nicholas said. “We would like the opportunity for more business, obviously. I think that’s only fair if it’s public money.”
O’Connor, who has three decades of experience in the Niagara Falls tourism industry, said she has been the sole driver in developing this proposal. She said she has visited other cities that run similar programs and has invested considerable time into developing her proposal.
“Why not Niagara Majestic?” O’Connor said. “I’m the one to offer a plan to come up with a public-private partnership. I invented this.”
She has given the presentation to other tourism leaders and believes that there are potential funding sources outside of the 1 percent hotel occupancy tax.
“I think we need to come up with creative ways to have buy-in from the community on this,” O’Connor said.
Contact Denise Jewell
at 282-2311, Ext. 2245.