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The work of fashioning a vibrant Niagara Region tourism zone that celebrates natural and cultural attractions on both sides of the international border has begun, but the most difficult steps lie ahead.

That was the central message that speakers delivered Wednesday to more than 125 business owners, tourism officials and government leaders attending "Rethinking Niagara," a conference at Niagara University on developing a tourism strategy for Southern Ontario and Western New York.

Conference leaders identified five themes to potential tourist attractions that both sides share, some that could be explored fully only by crossing the border.

By encouraging savvy marketing and attracting development efforts that strengthen those themes, speakers said, the Niagara Region will attract more tourists, create more jobs and help support the communities they draw on.

The task now will be to invest in the sites and the stories that link them, said Beth Benson, executive director of the Toronto-based Waterfront Regeneration Trust.

The Canadian group joined with the Urban Design Project of the University at Buffalo to organize the conference, one in a series of such events.

Themes discussed included:

The Landscape -- including natural assets such as Niagara Falls and the Niagara Gorge, Olmsted parks, and the Canadian formal gardens, butterfly conservatory and horticultural school.

The Bounty of Nature -- including attractions such as the Niagara Wine Route and Niagara County sportfishing.

The Wealth of the Region -- focusing on Niagara's industrial heritage, including the development of electrical power and historic canals and grain elevators.

War, Peace and Freedom -- including unique military sites such as Old Fort Niagara and the region's key role in the Underground Railroad, which shepherded escaped slaves to Canada during the Civil War.

Enterprise in the Arts -- drawing on the region's array of first-class cultural attractions, from the Shaw Festival to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

"These are stories that can't be fully told on one side of the border," said Robert Shibley, director of the Urban Design Project. "What is the story of the escape to freedom without the receiving hand? What is the story of a war told from only one side?"

The National Park Service has asked Congress for permission to study designating the New York part of Niagara as a "national heritage area." Today, in the budget bill under consideration by the White House, $300,000 has been included to fund such a study, if Congress approves, said Terrence Moore, a planning official for the National Park Service.

Becoming a national heritage area would make Niagara eligible for modest federal aid and technical assistance in meeting its goals, Moore said. That way the National Park Service could help on issues facing the region, which it considers of national significance, but leave it under local control, Moore said.


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