Southtowns residents gathered in Evans on Thursday night to brainstorm ways to draw tourists to the rural areas along Lake Erie.
Representatives of the University at Buffalo's Regional Institute led the forum, which was coordinated by the Southtowns Community Enhancement Coalition, a tourism task-force that includes Eden, Brant, Evans, Angola, Farnham, and the town and village of North Collins.
In 2005, the Regional Institute compiled a list of more than 300 "assets" to the Southtowns, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff Estate in Derby, parks, beaches, historical buildings, farms and events such as the Eden Corn Festival and berry-picking season.
Eden resident Carol Lewis suggested increasing parking spaces for RV campers. She also said that, as president of the Eden Historical Society, she sees the potential for Underground Railroad tourism.
"The Southtowns have been kind of stagnant, and we're trying to encourage people to visit a bypassed area," she said. "We've got an exit off the Thruway, it's easy."
Most people agreed that the area needs to increase its infrastructure of eating establishments, accommodations and transportation before seeking a tourist influx.
"You can't put the cart before the horse," said Regional Institute Director Kate Foster. "Getting people there is only half the battle."
David Lacki, director of tourism for the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he hopes that the Southtowns will work more closely with their northern neighbors. "You have more to do in the Southtowns than in Niagara Falls," he said.
The community coalition, which in December received funding through a Governor's Quality Communities Award for Excellence, is currently in the process of becoming a nonprofit group.
Lori Szewczyk, director of Community Development for the Town of Evans, which leads the project, said that the area is interested in increasing tourism to take advantage of previously underused financial resources.