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Area has assets, promote them Forget boundaries and think regionally on tourism

Second of two parts.

Erie County's tourism market may be secondary to a global destination such as Niagara Falls, but it is nothing if not legitimate.

Its accumulation of attractions is remarkable: an array of Frank Lloyd Wright structures along with master works by other top American architects; a history that includes prominence on the Underground Railroad, and the assassination of President William McKinley and subsequent inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt; an art museum with world-class collections and ambitions; and its location at the western end of the Erie Canal and on the eastern tip of Lake Erie. This area has more going for it than most of its residents seem to acknowledge.

Alone, any of Erie County's noteable tourism assets might not compete well against other, more compelling and modern attractions. But lumped together and placed only 20 miles from one of the world's premier destinations, they can be a powerhouse. The trick is for Erie to partner with tourism officials in Niagara County -- and even in Southern Ontario -- in a way that gives them access to those visitors most interested in cultural tourism.

At the same time, the county needs to work the flip side of that coin, targeting traditional cultural tourists by noting that while they are here feasting on our arts and architecture, they can also visit one of the world's great natural wonders just a few miles down the road and even place a bet or two here, there or everywhere.

With the county's Underground Railroad connection -- an asset that is slated for further development soon -- the county should also do more to attract African-American tourists. It's a natural market, and given its recent growth, an especially attractive one. Between 2000 and 2002, that market grew 4 percent, twice as fast as the tourism market in general, according to a spokeswoman with the Tourism Industry Association of America.

These are stopgap measures, though. They won't bring to Erie County the number of visitors its assets deserve. As the county gets its finances back in order, it needs to get back in the game of attracting visitors, including those who never thought of visiting the Buffalo area but who would love it once they arrived.

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