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Locking into the market for cultural heritage tourism

Lockport showed off its best to delegates to the National Preservation Conference on Wednesday.

Forty-four visitors took a bus ride from conference headquarters in Buffalo to the Lock City for a guided tour of its top attractions.

They took a boat ride through the Erie Canal locks, offered by Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises, and sailed through the Lockport Cave.

In addition, the tour bus took them through the city's oldest neighborhoods, including the grand old houses around the Kenan Center, in addition to visiting the Erie Canal Discovery Center.

The visit was a hit, said Robert J. Hagen, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, who acted as one of the guides.

"I'm amazed at their excitement. It was raining. The cave ride is a little dank and wet, anyway. I thought they'd be mad at me. They loved it. They had a great time," Hagen said.

Besides showing off existing assets, the organizers made sure to get in a plug for the Flight of Five project, the proposed restoration to working order of the 19th century set of five stairstep canal locks.

The city collected more than $3 million in foundation, state and federal funds to get the project designed, but the recession has slammed the door, for now, on another $7 million or so needed to do the work.

"I'm amazed," said Sarah McCullough of Jackson, Miss. "To come to Lockport and see the beautiful stone buildings and how the community, it seems, has really pulled together to get behind preservation of the canal -- something that is certainly of significance not just to the local heritage but to our national heritage -- it's wonderful to see the effort that is being put into developing it for cultural tourism."

Maura Cohen of Buffalo said she'd never visited the locks despite being a lifelong Western New Yorker.

"We had incredible experiences, just fabulous, and everybody is raving," said Cohen, who said the cave ride was the highlight for her.

"I thought it was amazing. It's a great little town," said Betsy Sandidge of San Francisco. "I had never seen the Erie Canal and was always fascinated by it."

Brian Percival of Forest Hills said he was interested in learning about the 65-foot-high Niagara Escarpment that the canal broke through at Lockport.

"I always knew about the Erie Canal, but I never realized there were such engineering feats connected with it," Percival said.

The visitors said they thought Lockport had the makings of a successful heritage tourism site.

"Whether they restore the locks or not, the history's here," Sandidge said.

"If good things do come out of economic downturns, what you see is people taking more of an interest in cultural heritage tourism and our past and what built our country," McCullough said. "I think the Erie Canal is certainly a tremendous part of that national history."