Western New York Welcome Center: a price tag not welcome by taxpayers

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A Thruway Welcome Center on Grand Island is trying to get visitors to stay in Western New York longer, and spend their money.

But neighbors question the $20 million-dollar price tag to build it, and how difficult it is to get there. 

If you take a drive along the 190, you might catch a glimpse of this sprawling 13-thousand square-foot facility,one of 11 touting tourism across the state.  

Patrick Kaler, President of  Visit Buffalo-Niagara says the Welcome Center has been called ” a gateway” to world class destinations in our region. He said, “It really is a celebration of who we are as a region in Western New York.”

Just taking a look at the Frank-Lloyd Wright inspired building details, you might guess, this project is expensive. 

The Thruway Authority provided us with the final price tag: $20,290,085.09

All paid for with, your taxpayer dollars. “We don’t need a $25 million dollar toilet on the thruway here,” said Danny Knoll Jr. He’s a local business owner from Amherst, and says this is state money that was flushed away. 

“I don’t think this is going to be a draw or an attraction for the area. It’s simply a rest stop.”

He wants to know why the Welcome Center isn’t in Buffalo or Niagara Falls. He says it’s difficult to get here from the thruway. 

“I think most people are coming southbound, they’re going to drive up and say, “hey look, there was a travel area, but they couldn’t get to it and they’re beyond it by that time.”

You also can’t get gas there. But there are charging stations for electric cars. The only food available is a market full of local products.  

We asked Patrick Kaler, “For people who think this big building is a waste of taxpayer money, what’s your response to that?”

He said, “I would say that even in Erie County alone, we welcome over 8 million visitors to Erie County on an annual basis. It’s a $1.7 billion dollar industry year after year.”

We filed a freedom of information  request with the State Thruway Authority, to get the receipts for spending at the Welcome Center. 

We asked for a specific break down of how that $20 million dollars was spent. 

We learned our foil request was received, but we were told they couldn’t provide the receipts in time for this story to air.”

Patrick Kaler says there has been a lot of visitors already. He said, “In the first two months, they’ve welcomed over 36 thousand people through the doors.”

But Kaler couldn’t tell us how the state was tracking foot traffic. 

36 thousand people in two months, is a lot of visitors. That’s 580 people a day, or 216 thousand visitors a year if numbers remain the same. 

That’s enough to fill Keybank Center twice in its two months of opening. For people like Knoll Jr. who wants the money invested elsewhere, he said that number is hard to believe. 

“Where is the payback subjective or are we going to see some retention of money here?”

We found out Grand Island Town Supervisor Nate McMurray was a catalyst for bringing the Welcome Center to his town. 

We asked him, “What would be your response to people who say, “Nate I’m a taxpayer, and I see this big building, and I don’t really know where i’m going to see the revenue?” 

McMurray said, ” I want to say to people, we take for granted the fact that we are one of the key tourist destinations not just for the region but for the whole world. That is a major driver of economic benefits to our community.”

Our foil request has been received by the State Thruway Department, it takes about 20 days to process. 
We are told we will see a breakdown of how the money was spent on this facility by early next month. 
We will of course bring you an update on this story as soon as we get that information. 

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