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DEVELOPERS PLAN POWERFUL AREA STUDY

After more than a year of intermittent discussions, a group of area development officials has agreed to pursue a powerful new tool for stimulating investment in tourism offerings here.

The "new tool" actually is a study. But development experts say this study is different from most.

Identifying specific real estate best suited to harnessing tourism trends should give development companies and venture capitalists compelling reasons to focus on Western New York, officials have decided.

This type of study distinguishes itself by having "a proven track record," said Robert Shibley, University at Buffalo Urban Design Project director, who has lobbied area officials for its funding. "Studies like this have made a significant difference in marketing the Canadian attractions and can do the same for us."

The question now is how long will it take for the partners to pitch in the estimated $100,000 such a study would cost. Not all the potential partners have confirmed their participation, said Luke Rich, regional director of Empire State Development, who declined to name names.

But Rich and others were confident that having reached consensus on the concept, the money would be found.

"On the idea of developing a regional or binational strategy for developing tourism product, there is absolute consensus from all partners," said Laurence Rubin, Erie County commissioner of environment and planning. "We need a plan that says, 'Here's where you fill in the gaps on a strategic basis to take the region to the next level.' "

Potential partners include the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. for the City of Buffalo; the City of Niagara Falls; Niagara County; Buffalo Niagara Enterprise; and Empire State Development Corp.

Niagara County hasn't been able to find the money in its budget yet. Erie County said it hasn't yet been asked to write a check for a specific project.

Different levels of urgency are normal in different governments, Shibley said. That's part of the reason "regionalism is hard work," he said.

But this study is a necessary piece of work if the Erie Niagara region hopes to make good on dreams of a thriving tourist economy, said Shibley, who proposed the undertaking with Canadian consultant Robert O'Dell last year and again this April.

The study, Shibley said, would be produced in three phases:

Identify key trends in the global tourism market.

Identify strengths of the Niagara Frontier that are particularly suited to developments taking advantage of those trends.

Decide what areas in the region would best support those projects.

In Ontario, a similar study published in early 1999 has provided development officials with compelling evidence that their area was worth a look, Shibley said. As important, it provided a regional context to reassure potential investors that their project would fit into a larger framework of attractions, Shibley said.

"We have no such road map on the American side," he said.

In Ontario, Niagara Economic and Tourism Corp. official Renato Romanin said developing a tourism investment strategy has been key to drawing concentrated attention from potential investors.

"You can't ask people to invest millions of dollars in your back yard without serious investigation," said Romanin, the agency's senior economic-development officer. "You need to know what your strengths are, so that you can make a case for yourself, in detail. Saying you're a great place to work, a great place to live, and great place to play just doesn't cut it anymore."

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