According to the owner of a convenience store near Thruway Exit 57A in Evans, visitors usually have three questions: "Where can I park my RV?" "How can I find boat access to the lake?" And, "Where the heck am I?"
"Most of the people who get off at our exit get off by mistake," said Tom Perkins, co-owner of Evans Country Depot. "They thought it was Exit 57."
That's a problem the Southtowns Community Enhancement Coalition is attempting to solve. The group, which comprises the towns of Evans, Eden, North Collins and Brant and the villages of Angola, Farnham and North Collins, conducted a forum Friday in which it presented the results of its first step toward joint tourism development and garnered community input.
The effort itself is groundbreaking, according to Kate Foster, leader of the University at Buffalo Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. Funded by a $37,000 grant, the institute's work has included working with the municipalities to assemble an inventory of potential tourist sites.
The coalition and the institute plan to continue steps toward putting a tourism strategy in place.
Foster said the process is a model for other municipalities.
"In this region, we have people talking about regionalism and making it synonymous with city-county consolidation," she said, "and yet these kinds of examples, prototypes of regionalism are happening around us under our nose.
"When you get four towns and three villages to come together . . . that's an example of regional thinking and action that we'd like to encourage. Other people may look up and say, 'Hey, that's pretty good.' And that's the way people think about regionalism around the rest of the country."
The results presented Friday in Evans included a total of 380 assets spread over the municipalities, in 10 categories including lodging, dining, cultural, natural and agricultural.
The region's strengths and opportunities, the study showed, revolve around agriculture, its history, natural beauty and niche retail attributes.
Its weaknesses included a lack of lodging, a lack of visitor readiness for some potential sites and a lack of infrastructure such as signs, a visitor center or central points for distributing visitor information.
The link between all of the municipalities is that they're dependent on Exit 57A, near the Eden-Evans border, as their main link to the Thruway and potential tourists. The coalition started as an effort to get a visitor kiosk there.
Participants called for greater cooperation in scheduling and publicizing attractions in the area, but the key to success may still rest on letting people know where they are and how to get places after they get off the Thruway.
It's a problem that extends beyond the Southtowns, Angola Trustee William Houston said, echoing other calls for a visitors center when people enter New York on the Thruway.
"We talk about promoting our area, but if the State of New York could build a visitors center, I think we could convince people to do things in Angola, Silver Creek, Chautauqua County, all the way from Buffalo on down," Houston said. "They could do something to welcome people to New York other than 'Here's the toll card, start paying.' "