The swirl of waterfront plans emerging since Bass Pro withdrew is mind-boggling. But where's the tourism?
What defines a tourist? The industry standard is, "People who travel to and stay in places outside their usual environment for more than 24 hours." I prefer, "Those who travel 100 miles or more to visit a specific area or attraction."
Much of what is proposed does not meet either standard. It just creates churn (shuffling the locals), adding nothing to our economy. We need something unique and/or outstanding in relation to anything similar within hundreds of miles to cash in on tourism.
Converting the massive second floor of the DL&W terminal into a museum will draw tourists. The Pedaling History Bicycle Museum and the Aerospace Museum could anchor this space. The unique bicycle museum has been drawing tourists for years. Its world-class collection would be a major draw on the waterfront. Most of the aerospace collection is in storage, hampering its draw. Opening it up in the DL&W space would bring tourists and tie it into the Naval and Military Park.
The key is to add some of the Pierce-Arrow Museum collection and ties to other related sites into the DL&W site for a chain effect. Cycling spawned the Pierce automobile in a tiny corner of the massive Pierce bicycle factory a stone's throw from the DL&W terminal. The Pierce Arrow Museum's re-creation of a Frank Lloyd Wright Gas Station connects to the other Wright jewels, adding to the critical mass needed to attract tourists. These moves, added to a sprinkling of food and fun shopping, are a recipe for creating a steady stream of visitors from beyond the region to the waterfront.
But more is needed to take our waterfront and Buffalo to the next level as a major tourism destination. We need a unique iconic symbol. With no natural attraction such as the falls, we must create one. Those suggesting something mimicking other locations set a difficult task making it bigger and better; copycat won't cut it. A giant Ferris Wheel would work if it were to rival London's Eye or the Singapore Flyer. There are some large wheels in North America but nothing that size.
The most sensible idea I've seen is Ran Webber's plan to reuse a portion of the Skyway as a glass-covered pedestrian pathway. Unique, unlike anything else in the world, a commanding presence on the waterfront. It's practical; Webber has lined up an impressive group of architects and engineers who attest to its feasibility.
While it would cost more than tearing the Skyway down, I've seen nothing that will put Buffalo tourism on steroids for twice the money. Its "green" aspect turns a 20th century structure into a 21st century centerpiece. Quite literally, a build-it-and-they-will-come -- by the hundreds of thousands.
W.T. "Bill" McKibben serves on the advisory board of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.