On the other side of the Niagara River, Niagara Falls, Ont., is poised for a building boom based on gambling and glitz. It's a choice that has been made, and it's already drawing big numbers. Fine, may the town prosper. May its new wealth be spread liberally among its citizens, and may some of it spill over to Niagara Falls, N.Y., as well.
The temptation in Buffalo will be to try to duplicate what succeeds a few miles to the north. But playing catch-up is unlikely to produce another bonanza, and it's hard to do successfully at the far edge of the action. "Come over to Buffalo and do the same things you can do in Niagara Falls but without the waterfall"? It doesn't sing.
Buffalo may or may not eventually have a casino, but the center of its tourism planning should be elsewhere. Its broader strategy should be to develop and market an alternative, to make itself a destination in its own right that some percentage of the Falls tourists would want to visit for a different experience -- one they can't get in Niagara Falls -- while they're in the area.
Fortunately, this city's gifts suggest a logical market niche to pitch to -- one that the new mega-developments at the Falls will leave unfilled. Buffalo could go for the tourists who are interested in history, heritage, culture and art -- the tourists ready to take a break from the bright lights in a place with some traditional character.
Oh sure, Buffalo's national image isn't exactly one of a cultural capital. But people who live here know this is a city with outstanding architecture, unique and interesting history and a cornucopia of cultural gifts, many of them left over from the days when it was a center of wealth.
Buffalo's job now is to tell the rest of the world. After all, the tourists most likely to be interested in a Buffalo with class are exactly the ones who are sophisticated enough to get the word.
Why not go for the kinds of visitors who flock to tour restored houses in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.; who travel to Chicago for its treasury of beautiful old buildings and art institutions; who tour around Virginia looking at Monticello and Civil War battlefields? There's more to tourism than Las Vegas.
It's not like this in the Sun Belt
Of course, part of what's required is for Buffalo's own residents to develop a fuller appreciation of what they have. Consider that most Americans now live in Sun Belt-style sprawls of low-rise houses, with little varying the landscape but billboards and gas stations. Their towns have little history or sense of place. Now take another mental look at something as familiar as the block after block of grand old Victorian homes in the city's Delaware District, preserved by loving owners. Many Americans rarely, if ever, see anything like it.
And that's just the beginning.
Some parts of the package that Buffalo could create from its own personality are here already. Others are in the works. Others require dusting off and promoting what we have neglected. Still others would have to be started from scratch. And it is essential to tie it all together with a good interpretive center and spend some real money training people and paying them to be knowledgeable helpers and guides. But it's doable.
The corps of home-grown cynics who will sneer at such a notion can spend their day dialing radio talk shows, but otherwise they should get out of the way.
Start with architecture
Begin with architecture. The Darwin Martin complex of Frank Lloyd Wright houses is the obvious star. When restoration is complete, it will be a destination for national and international tourists. But Buffalo has a richness of other gems as well.
Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building was a pioneering skyscraper when it was built in 1895-96. It is truly beautiful. City Hall is a prime piece of Art Deco design, none better anywhere. If the H.H. Richardson twin towers at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center ever get fixed up, they would count on any list. Not far away is the spectacular Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
Imagine a variety of well-narrated tours of these buildings, as well as the city's streets of stunning old homes, with historical comment and a few dramatic true stories. Be sure to mention the saga of the Larkin Company, with its pioneering mail-order business and its connections to Frank Lloyd Wright and the eccentric Elbert Hubbard of the Roycroft in East Aurora.
The Roycroft, of course, is one more of those destinations that will interest this type of tourist.
Fascinating stories to tell
We seem to keep our history a secret. Battles of the War of 1812 were fought around here. Let's not re-enact the burning of Buffalo in 1813 and 1814, but let's not forget the possibilities of historic tourism connected to the war. Industrial heritage? Buffalo's old grain elevators lurk over the waterfront. There's nothing quite like them anywhere. They create a canyon where Ohio Street crosses the Buffalo River. Frequent boat tours would be good.
There's history at the Michigan Street Baptist Church where runaway slaves found safety on the Underground Railway. Buffalo has never made enough of the waves of ethnic immigrants who populated this town. Could there be a prominent place to celebrate their presence?
A historic waterfront to tap
Our waterfront is an inadequately tapped source of tourist interest. The Erie Basin Marina is a nice place to go, but for a different look at the city our tourists can walk the Bird Island Pier, reachable from the foot of West Ferry Street. No one ever tells them about that, but it's a great summer hike. Or try the promenade with historical markers at the Coast Guard Station. We have a collection of warships well worth a visit. To the north, there are good plans to make the Erie Canal a greater attraction. Talk about history.
Make sure the tourists know about the downtown library's Mark Twain Room, where the full longhand manuscript of "Huckleberry Finn" is on display. And maybe someday the library system will take advantage of the collection of rare science books put together by the community during the Depression. The library's treasures alone should fill a museum far larger than the small rooms devoted now to their display.
The tourists should be told about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and its outstanding modern art collection. The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is across the street. Tell them Charles Burchfield was our artist, and make sure they see his Buffalo paintings. Tell them about his life here, too.
Fine theaters and parks
The visitors need to know that Buffalo has a growing Theater District. Explain how Shea's used to be the movie palace, but fell on hard times, nearly was demolished, but will live in new grandeur. Take them in to see it. And the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and its great concert hall, Kleinhans, should not be such a secret to outsiders.
Buffalo's network of parks designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted needs restoration work, but it promises to be of greater and greater value as Olmsted, an unusual sort of artist, becomes more widely appreciated nationwide and around the world. South Park was designed as an arboretum where hundreds of different trees and shrubs were exhibited amid unique views. It deserves careful renewal. The nearby botanical gardens are known to too few residents, to say nothing of tourists. Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna is unique and speaks with authenticity about our community.
Doubtless, our list is incomplete. The important point is that by doing the hard work of preserving, promoting and effectively presenting what it already has, Buffalo could earn a prominent place on the tour map.
And with the Falls moving ever more aggressively to bring tourists close by, it has more reason than ever to try.