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Niagara Falls struggles to staff hospitality industry, while competition from Amazon looms

The Mighty Niagara, between two tourism centers in New York and Ontario.
Mike Desmond
The Mighty Niagara, between two tourism centers in New York and Ontario.

Niagara Falls' dominant hospitality industry is an economic segment with around 15,000 workers. That’s basically the city's whole economy, as most industry has gone away.

It's currently facing serious problems, and may be facing more in the future.

Every fall, about 5,000 workers are laid off while another 5,000 resign for other jobs or to go to school.That leaves only about 5,000 to keep business going through the long winter.

Niagara Global Tourism Institute Associate Director Roscoe Naguit said those layoffs drive people into other jobs that are closer to year round.

“It's hard to be able to sustain that level," he said. "They're going to hire you in the spring and lay you off in the fall. Even before COVID, that cycle, folks just don't come back.”

And Global Tourism Institute Director Patrick Whalen said the city's hospitality industry will soon face an unexpected opponent, which might offer year-round jobs at similar rates.

Amazon’s new complex in the Town of Niagara received nearly the last approval for construction Tuesday. It’s expected to take less than two years to finish.

Amazon announced last year it was increasing starting wages for transportation and fulfillment jobs to $18 an hour.

Whalen said hospitality employees will have to chose between working in a hotel at $18 an hour for six months out of the year, or working in an Amazon warehouse at $18 an hour year round.

"They're going to go to Amazon," he said

The roughly 5,000 employees laid off every fall also needs to be addressed, Whalen said, noting it's a social justice issue. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 23% of the city lives below the poverty line.

"We have 5,000 people here that live in poverty in the city because they can't work year round in the city and are willing to," he said.

Just about every mayor in past decades has suggested solutions to the problem.

Current Mayor Robert Restaino wants a new convention center to replace the former center, which became the Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino. Besides the home run of the center, Restaino also wants some singles.

“The Discovery Shuttle allows us to move people all throughout the county, something that didn't exist when we had the former convention center," he said. "So, all of these forward-thinking, forward-looking opportunities all come together to try and create a better environment for our guests, but more importantly for our residents.”

There is a constant flow of trainees from the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute in the heart of the tourist area.

Josh Blumberg is Niagara County Community College’s assistant vice president of academic affairs, running the culinary institute and taking requests for workers call.

“My faculty are all getting the same phone calls, same emails. We're getting calls from not just restaurants and hotels and your typical places that are looking, but, various retail outlets that aren't quite even hospitality related," he said. "Butchers are calling us.”

Blumberg expects to have perhaps 220 students in training this fall.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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