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MO' BETTER BEST BET FOR MO' TOURISM

The bad news is that when out-of-towners help pack Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Sunday for Buffalo's best annual jazz festival, they'll be hard-pressed to get the latest on the rest of the region's black history and culture.

The good news is that this is the last year that will happen.

The Buffalo Niagara African-American Heritage Guide is due out next month.

Combined with some other things going on -- most revolving around Mo' Better Buffalo, a black-run sales and marketing partnership -- it's the most positive sign yet that some people finally "get it" when it comes to tapping all of this region's potential as a tourism hot spot.

The colorful 34-page brochure commissioned by the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau and written by Jessica Thorpe contains narratives and guides to festivals, cultural institutions, businesses and churches, as well as maps.

Originally planning it for the spring, CVB officials said that it was more important to do it right than do it quickly. It appears they've done it right, and it'll be ready this fall when staffers travel to trade shows.

But what might matter even more in the long run is Mo' Better Buffalo, formed by Thorpe and Kevin Cottrell, the longtime operator of Underground Railroad tours.

Its genesis came last year when a group of 50 black tour operators came to see what Buffalo Niagara has to offer. The "black" portion of such tours typically focuses only on the Underground Railroad, so Cottrell and Thorpe decided to showcase everything else.

They put together a show featuring black theater companies, a ballet troupe, jazz and classical music groups and vendors at the Langston Hughes Institute. Surveys distributed to the tour operators showed that the eye-opening presentation was a hit.

Now they want to market tour packages to capitalize on the fact that there's more here than just Niagara Falls and slave routes. Thorpe's vision, for instance, sees tourists who want to experience black culture attending an African-American church, stopping at Langston Hughes for an exhibit, then taking in a play at the African-American Cultural Center before dining at a black restaurant.

"These are all ideas, if people would come together, in which everybody would get something from it," said Thorpe, who also runs the marketing company "outside the box."

At the same time, white-run institutions seem to be opening their eyes. The CVB brochure is one example. And the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise contracted with Mo' Better Buffalo when it wanted to find Native American dancers for its "summer camp" for corporate site selectors.

Still, there are strains. Blacks fear whites trying to appropriate their culture while not sharing the funding pot. Others bristle over what "tourism-ready" means.

Those tensions have to be resolved if the region is to benefit from the tourism potential of next year's celebration of the centennial of the Niagara Movement, precursor to the NAACP. Mo' Better Buffalo would seem to be in a good position to do that, even though it has yet to find a funding source -- which seems odd, given all the talk around here about tourism.

Another challenge has been getting financially beleaguered cultural institutions to find the time to supply information needed to price and market tour packages. They need to realize that it's in their interest to find that time.

Bureaucracies, like nature, abhor a vacuum -- especially where there's money to be made. If black institutions don't take control, someone else will.

And at it's core, that's what this is about: money. It's about economic development as much as it's about culture and heritage. In progressive cities, the two go hand in hand.

Mo' Better Buffalo offers a chance to do that here. Mo' people just need to realize it.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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