July 31, 2008

Thruway Authority Award

We at Niagara Times have never attempted to portray this site as some hard-hitting news source, just a site to stimulate some discussion, good or bad, right or wrong, on various topics of interest. We are periodically able to break a news story which the mainstream media then picks up and runs with, and we're okay with that. We've also from time to time been critical of various local media outlets for what appears to be their willingness to "create" news as opposed to searching for and reporting the news. That being said, we are astonished by what appears, at least on the surface, to be the lack of acknowledgement of a glaring problem.

Making barely a blip on the media radar recently has been a story related to the tentative awarding of a New York State Thruway Authority contract to Niagara Majestic Tours, a Niagara Falls-based company that offers travel arrangement, tour and non-tour transportation services.

With the awarding of the contract, Majestic Tours will staff the Angola and Clarence information centers. It will be the first time in roughly three decades that a private company will staff the centers. Majestic will also be in charge of selling hotel stays and tour packages on commission to tourists who stop at the public information booths.

The award has raised some concerns among the hospitality industry because a private company beat out both the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp. and the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, public entities that would be less likely to steer business to certain customers, as a private company may.

However, as problematic as these aspects may be, the heart is the issue lies in the fact that the President & CEO of Niagara Majestic Tours is Doreen O'Connor. What seems to have slipped through the media cracks is the fact that Doreen O'Connor is married to Sean O'Connor, a Niagara County Legislator, and an employee of Majestic Tours. According to the Department of State Division of Corporation Entity Information website, the business is listed out of the same address as the O'Connor home.

Sure, someone is going to make the argument that it's her company and he just works for her, and the business just happens to be run out of their home. But we have a county legislator with strong ties to a business entity that is competing against a county agency, and the wife of a county legislator, who as we all know is getting taxpayer-funded lifetime health insurance from the same county, competing against a county agency.

Now, we are not begrudging anyone the opportunity to make a living. But these awards were made based off of a bid process. Would a county legislator be in a position to know what a county agency is going to bid, then outbid that agency?

Maybe everything is legitimate, but it simply looks bad. We'd encourage the Thruway Authority to take a second look at this award to confirm that no inside information was used to obtain the award and to examine Mr. O'Connor's role in Majestic Tours. Otherwise, it looks questionable at best.


Anonymous said...

1. Isn't this a serious conflict of interest for O'Connor?

2. If Doreen O'Connor was the wife of a Republican would the Buffalo News have pointed out her relationship in its story? We all know the answer to that one.

3. What is the County Democratic position on this?

Anonymous said...

Any way you cut it, losing that contract is very bad news for the NTCC. The irony is that Percy got it stuck to him by one of our own people.

larry S said...

I think it will come down to whether or not Sean disclosed his interest in Majestic when the bid was submitted. If it wasn't, he's got problems.

Anonymous said...

So he fleeced us for lifetime health insurance and now his "wife" follows up by taking this contract from the NTCC. Is this Sean's parting shot or does he plan on running again?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Thruway Authority knows something the rest of the county doesn`t. That th NTCC is worthless!!!!

Pete M said...

It doesn't really have to do with the value of the NTCC. Do they suck? Who knows. Did O'Connor use his power an a county legislator to influence the outcome of this process? That's the $64,000 question.

Anonymous said...

This is even more egregious than Sean scamming the public for lifetime health care.

It takes a lot to shock me with local politics..but this one is the worst I've heard in a while.

O'Connor, Joyce, Rivera and Delmonte??? I guess the joke's on us.

Anonymous said...

It was another disastrous week for the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp., which gets $3 million in public money to promote tourism each year, but found itself unable to compete with a private, unsubsidized company on a big state contract.

Majestic Tours, a tourism operation owned by Doreen O'Connor, outbid the NTCC with its proposal to operate the tourist information centers at the Clarence and Angola rest stops along the New York State Thruway. It marks the first time in 30 years that a private company has won the contract.

Majestic will now have the opportunity to sell tours and hotel rooms on a commission basis to visitors who haven't made such arrangements before getting in their cars.

"This is absolutely unbelievable," state Sen. George Maziarz told the Reporter. "You've got a state agency, one that is subsidized by the taxpayers to the tune of $3 million a year, and they can't even manage to outbid a private company on a contract awarded by another state agency? I don't know what they're doing over there."

Perhaps if the NTCC's director, John Percy, didn't spend so much of his time globetrotting on the taxpayers' dime, he added, the agency might have been able to submit a more competitive bid.

Percy recently returned from an extended stay in exotic India, which he claimed would spur tourism from that country.

"We were treated like royalty," Percy told a presumably stunned reporter from the Buffalo News on his return.

According to Percy, the NTCC sold 3,600 hotel stays through the two information centers last year, and actually loses money running the operation.

"It's comical on quite a number of levels," said one local tourism veteran, who asked not to be identified. "The NTCC is so badly run that it can't even turn a profit on the sale of hotel rooms. The truth is that you could spend all day in downtown Niagara Falls talking to people involved in the hospitality industry and find that a great percentage of them don't even know who John Percy is."

What Percy seems to be best at is convincing gullible politicians to give him more money. Recently, he appeared before the Niagara Falls City Council in order to justify the NTCC's receipt of $1 million annually from the city's share of the Seneca Niagara Casino payment, in addition to 100 percent of the money collected by the city through the hotel bed tax.

While he claimed that hotel occupancy had risen by 7.6 percent in 2007 from 2006, he failed to mention that five downtown hotels had closed, and none of the deep thinkers on the Council thought to ask why, if that many more tourists were renting rooms here, the amount collected in bed tax remained virtually unchanged.

But the loss of the state Thruway contract wasn't the only bad news for downtown tourism last week, as the Taste of Niagara Festival, a gala event styled after the Taste of Buffalo celebration in that city, had a stake driven through its heart due to a squabble between the city and the state, which couldn't agree about who was responsible for liability protection.

The two-day event was to have featured food provided by top restaurants throughout Western New York, live music and fun in a downtown district that has been devoid of anything other than sun-baked concrete or pouring rain for the entire summer.

The event was begun four years ago in Lockport, growing to the point where the amenities offered by the county seat could no longer contain it. Promoter Richard Hoose then made the fateful decision to bring it to Niagara Falls, where he believed an even greater opportunity existed.

Bands were booked and vendors lined up for what promised to be the biggest event of the year in the city.

An agreement was reached with Joe Anderson to hold the event along the East Pedestrian Mall, whose control of vending rights along the city walkway has been the subject of an FBI investigation now dragging into its fifth year.

But unknown to Hoose, the state's USA Niagara Development Corp. was in negotiations with Anderson to buy the property. While incompetent state officials have refused to confirm or deny the negotiations are taking place, they refused Hoose's request for permission to hold the event, telling the promoter he'd have to get permission from the city.

The agency's list of directors and advisory council contains the names of many of the usual suspects involved in holding up progress here, including Percy, state Rep. Francine Del Monte, Maid of the Mist honcho Jimmy Glynn, City Historian Tom Yots, Joan Aul of M&T Bank and Mayor Paul Dyster.

Hoose then took his request to the city, where nothing whatsoever was done about it. While Dyster and rookie City Administrator Donna Owens were supportive, he said, the result was the same. The promoter said he will try again next year.

Why the city and state, both of which receive millions of dollars to promote tourism and attract visitors to Niagara Falls each year, cannot combine to manage to pull off a single well-run summer event downtown when second-tier towns such as Lockport, North Tonawanda and Lewiston have hosted successful events on their own for years is a question no one here seems to be able to answer.

On any given weekend, the hotels are full of tourists looking for something to do, and thousands of city residents regularly drive to Buffalo or one of the other outlying towns and cities to attend events staged with the help of government officials who don't possess a fraction of the resources available to their Niagara Falls counterparts.

And as far as can be determined, John Percy is the only person in the city associated with tourism who will tell you that things are better than ever. And his salary, which is roughly three times that of the mayor, depends on you believing it.

Reverend Right said...

someone here thinks that O'Connor has "power" as a County legislator????


BTW, Hobbes, this is among your worst expositions of bald speculation and wishful thinking. No basis in fact, no source, just bald speculation.

Next you'll be speculating that somehow Henry W's partnership in Harris Beach has something to do with all the bizniz HB gets from the County, the IDA and other local gov't entities.

Ridiculous, I say.

not_over_it said...

LOL! Thank goodness I wasn't the only one who saw this coinkydink!

I talk to people in O'Connor's district that have considered filing a missing person's report when he's not running for re-election...

Anonymous said...

OMG... here we go again. Give this woman a break. Did you ever think that she just maybe had the best response to the RFP??? Percy and the NTCC screwed things up at the information centers and all of the industry knows it. He stunk and it was time for a change. Who cares who her husband is and why should that matter!! Lets look at her plan and progress and then judge.

not_over_it said...

Is "Here we go again" supposed to dismiss any argument against what you're saying, the way Ronald Reagan "won" the debate that he lost on substance by getting off a good one-liner?

There have been plenty of people who've screwed things up, but I do believe that it's up to us to hold anyone and everyone in charge accountable.

Speaking of the NFTA, where is the secret money for the NF administration coming from?

Should we all just shurg our shoulders and count it as pennies from heaven?