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Tourism: lead, follow or get out of the way!

May was tourism month in New York City. The mayor's and the governor's press people have been very busy trumpeting new ad campaigns to improve the city and state's image with tourists. This is very reminiscent of the deck hands rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. We are in trouble and the numbers tell the story.

Flacks on the government payroll have been bragging that the tourism industry attracts 25 million visitors spending $14 billion and creating 130,000 jobs. They proudly project a 1 percent increase in tourists and claim that it's the city's major growth industry. One percent is the major growth industry? Are these people reading their own press releases?

Tourism is an especially important aspect of the local economy because it is disposable income your attract from elsewhere. Government aggressively taxes tourist dollars, generating $650 million for the city and a similar amount for the state. These are tax revenues that you and I don't have to pay to support New York's social service "hammock."

But we are losing the competitive race. Nationally, tourism by foreigners (the big spenders in the tourism game) is growing by more than 7 percent per year. This year, with the weak dollar, it may very well zoom past that, but we have been losing market share for five years. As recently as 1990, 26 percent of foreign visitors came to New York City. Today it is only 20 percent.

New York City is losing market shares in tourism because it is the ultimate free market. Tourists can choose where they want to go. Many go where they are offered the most entertainment for their dollar. New York City has been living off its unique assets like the performing arts, the finest multi-ethnic dining and top shelf shopping, but we are losing market share because we have not invested in the tourism industry. Polishing the apple is no substitute for building a better apple. Our investment is apparently limited to ad campaigns and hospitality coaching for cops, cab drivers and bellhops.

Where is the imaginative leadership? New York is a city of islands with 578 miles of waterfront with gorgeous views. Yet waterfront development is stonewalled by environmental zealots. The beaches of Rockaway are among the most beautiful in the world, yet the city has allowed the area to deteriorate while 300 acres of city owned beachfront has been allowed to lie fallow for 30 years. Jamaica Bay has a nationally recognized bird sanctuary and is often touted as a recreational resources; yet you can't get to it.

Effort to re-establish the entertainments of Coney Island move ahead with glacier-like speed. The high-tech rail-link between Midtown Manhattan and the airports in Queens is in danger of being scaled back, yet the link from Manhattan to Newark airport is scheduled to be completed in less than 2 years. Once Newark is complete, JFK airport is expected to lose more than 10 percent of its passenger traffic.

But this neglect is not surprising, we haven't nurtured the tourist assets we have now. The Javits Center has been allowed to become uncompetitive because of corruption and featherbedding. Yankee Stadium in Manhattan would become a major draw for tourists, yet politics will keep it in The Bronx until George moves to the Meadowlands. A recent report indicates that the state's three thoroughbred race tracks, which generate $57 million in taxes and produce 20,000 jobs, need $33 million to refurbish because of neglect in recent years.

Which brings me to the subject of legal- New York City. Gambling is a major tourist attraction. Furthermore, surrounding states are pursuing gambling within their borders to accommodate, to a significant extent, New York State residents. Ten million New Yorkers travel to Atlantic city every year and return home $1 billion poorer. A casino proposal for Bridgeport, Connecticut estimates it could gross $1 billion per year because of its proximity to New York City. Bridgeport? Where the hell is Bridgeport?

Even gambling critic Comptroller Carl McCall, using very conservative assumptions, estimated that tax revenues from legalized casino gambling would exceed $600 million. An independent report estimated that even limited casino gambling would produce 60,000 jobs.

In spite of this evidence, New York State leaders have not allowed the question put before the voters. A rational debate on this issue has been prevented by a campaign of fear by religious leaders and lobbying by established gambling interests. Yet virtually all surveys indicate the voters favor legalized gambling.

McCall's report on gambling had an unexpected pearl of wisdom on page 4, "If a state does not legalize casinos then it will participate unwillingly in the adverse impacts from casino gambling without sharing in any of the benefits." I would go one step further. Since gambling is so prevalent in New York State now, we are always bearing the adverse social impacts of pathological gambling.

The bottom line is that the economy of the entire region is in serious trouble. The job losses in the last recession (is it over yet?) fell so heavily on New York State and New York City that some bold steps are needed. The status quo is not working. Leadership is

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Title Annotation:New York City
Author:Castellano, Vincent S.
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 7, 1995
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