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TOURIST SAYS IT ALL: IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME

Lois Etzler of Sunderland, Md., is not a city planner. She is not a paid consultant. She's just visiting.

But what she said about Buffalo makes as much sense as anything in the endless series of reports, studies, surveys, polls and plans we've been subjected to over the years.

"If you have places for visitors to see that are easy to get to, attractive and safe, they will go," said Ms. Etzler, in town for the Lutheran Layman's League Convention. "When I travel, I look for information about attractions in the area. Then it's a matter of what's interesting that I can get to without too much hassle that doesn't cost an arm and a leg."

In a few sentences, Ms. Etzler hit on the problem with Buffalo as a place to visit and, to some degree, a place to live. She also gave an unintentional endorsement of the city's plan for family-friendly attractions on the downtown waterfront.

The big problem with Buffalo for a visitor: There's no "gotta-see-it" place, other than Niagara Falls. No general-interest, one-size-fits-all destination for visitors and tourists. Or, for that matter, for locals.

That was obvious in talking Wednesday to more than a dozen people here for the Lutheran convention and a national swim meet at Erie Community College's Burt Flickinger Center.

"Anybody comes to visit us, we just zip them down to the waterfront," said swim mom Karen Gyolai, who lives in a Baltimore suburb.

Zip anybody down to the waterfront here, and they'll want a refund on the cab fare.

Yes, there's some "there" here. It's just scattered, outdated and out of the way.

Try telling an out-of-town visitor -- someone without a car, much time or a clue about where they're going -- how to get to the zoo. Or the Science Museum. Or the Albright-Knox art gallery.

A lot of the conventioneers and swim folks -- aside from the obligatory trip to Niagara Falls -- said they'd walked around downtown (unfortunately, without any information about the history of the buildings). A few found the City Hall observation deck (suggested by a shuttle bus driver). Some walked to the Main Place Mall, which -- although it has its charms -- isn't the ultimate shopping experience.

But there's no place in particular downtown to go. Unlike in other cities, no gotta-see-it waterfront museum, zoo, extravaganza.

As Vanessa Liveris, here from Chicago for the swim meet, asked, "What else is there, besides Niagara Falls?"

She's not the first to pose the question.

"There's not enough to do in the downtown area, no mass of anything of interest," said Jacek Wysocki, past chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When things are away from downtown and hard to get to, their impact is limited."

Some visitors with cars said they'd been to Darien Lake, Fantasy Island and the Galleria Mall (seen from the plane on the way in). But a lot of visitors don't go farther than their feet, Metro Rail or a shuttle bus will go.

That hurts economically, because visitors don't spend as many dollars here as they could. And without the attractions, we don't bring more visitors in.

Meanwhile, the science museum is salivating over waterfront space for a modern annex and IMAX theater. A children's museum -- play-and-learn centers for kids popping up around the country -- is a natural for the downtown waterfront. And the zoo, hemmed into antiquity in Delaware Park, would love to build a world-class attraction on the waterfront.

All of which fits the city's plan to turn the area around Marine Midland Arena into a family magnet -- with shops and restaurants following the crowds.

"That's the mayor's vision," said Alan DeLisle, the city's head of community development. "To make the downtown waterfront a regional, family entertainment hub."

The visitors had nice things to say about how friendly people are and how clean downtown is ("and no panhandlers or homeless people laying around," said a man from Bridgeport, Conn.)

But more than one, told that the waterfront was just a few blocks away, asked if there were any shops or restaurants down there.

Not really.

What's missing from the city's downtown waterfront plan is, obviously, the money to do most of it.

But we're apparently willing to spend some $85 million ($25 million gone already, $60 million reportedly on the table) to entice Ralph Wilson to keep his Bills around for another 10 years or so. For nearly the same money, we could have a world-class, tourist-magnet zoo on the Buffalo waterfront for the next century. Which makes more sense?

Maybe some or all of the grand downtown waterfront plan is beyond the reach of a region of barely a million people.

"I don't know if it is," said Wysocki. "But it doesn't mean we don't try."

Maybe the next time Lois Etzler is in town, she'll have something more to see.

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