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Conference is start of something big

She wore an expensive suit and a gold necklace, a stately woman whose carriage and dress suggested both "feminine" and "formidable." She came here from Austin, a long-stemmed Texas rose set loose in downtown's concrete canyon.

Yet my first impression of a stranger in a strange land proved to be anything but. Instead, Gay Ratliff forged a cultural connection to our northern burg and expressed an appreciation for its attributes that transcended boundaries. Never has the distance between Texas and the H.H. Richardson Towers seemed so insignificant -- and that is a testament to the power of our product.

"This is an exquisite city," she told me. "You have so much to be proud of. This has been an amazing [experience] for me."

We stood Friday in the downtown Convention Center, surrounded by folks for whom Darwin Martin is a household name. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the All-Star Game of heritage, is here. All of the mohammads finally came to Buffalo's mountain. As anticipated, they are awed.

Ratliff saw Thursday the places she had previously only heard about: A Wright site, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Olmsted's Delaware Park. A longtime Trust board member, she hosted the conference in Austin last year.

"You have many breathtaking buildings, much more of a beautiful fabric than Austin has," she told me. "I knew about the buildings and [Frederick Law] Olmsted and [Louis] Sullivan and Wright. But it is just fabulous to actually see it."

For whatever reason, we crave validation from outsiders. This week, we got it.

We have a wealth of architectural wonders and the added value of the Albright-Knox, century-old neighborhoods and a landmark-laden downtown. The 2,500 Trust visitors could step out of the Convention Center door and, within a 10-minute walk, pass the Statler Towers, City Hall, Sullivan's iconic Guaranty Building, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Ellicott Square building and the golden-domed M&T Center. In any other place, just those attractions would justify a Trust assemblage. For us, they are only the appetizer.

"What you have here," certified Ratliff, "is a major gold mine."

The Trust's visit and its members' stamp of approval validates the strategy of selling ourselves as a cultural tourism destination. More than that, it fast-forwards its reality. Hosting 2,500 visitors from our target tourism audience, who then go home and spread the word, does more to put us on the heritage tourism map than any six-figure ad campaign or glowing story in a national journal.

Heritage tourism will not replace Bethlehem Steel as an economic engine. But we've got the goods. We might as well use them.

Serena Bellew is a federal deputy preservation officer from Alexandria, Va.

"You have the real foundation here for heritage tourism," she told me. "A lot of cities try to fabricate it, they take a minor historical event or a marginal building and try to create more out of it than it is. You have amazing buildings, with a lot of variety from downtown through the neighborhoods. I didn't appreciate how much you had until I got here."

These landmark buildings and cultural sites are the main point of difference between Buffalo and everywhere else. Plenty of cities have pro sports and signature restaurants. As this week confirmed, we have a cultural and architectural legacy to widen the eyes of folks for whom heritage is a habit.

Years from now, when visiting culture junkies are part of the landscape, I think we will look back on this conference as a turning point. The brick-and-mortar legacy of Buffalo's days as a boom town will help to lift it to its feet. The poetic justice reverberates, from the Richardson Towers to Texas.


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