Presque Isle State Park is a 5-square-mile sand spit that extends out into Lake Erie from Erie, Pa. It serves as that city’s waterfront park, and its role is analogous to what the Buffalo Outer Harbor could play for Buffalo.
Presque Isle attracts more than 4 million visitors each year. I’m one of them. With friends, I usually drive the hundred miles at least once each spring and fall to observe migrating birds in the park. Like the Buffalo Outer Harbor, it serves as a gathering place during those migration seasons. But Presque Isle has enhanced its value as a migrant trap, and too little has been done to enhance our Outer Harbor for its comparable role.
Because I consider our Outer Harbor and the Presque Isle Park so similar, I contacted Harry Z. Leslie, the park operations manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to see if he had any comparable information about the value of the park to the local region.
I lucked out. Leslie sent me what he described as “the most recent visitor information study that we have done on Presque Isle. … This is the first of its kind for Pennsylvania state parks, where a visitor survey/study was conducted for 365 days, instead of just the main recreational season for a park.”
I must admit that in the past I believed the time spent to gather information for visitor surveys could be better applied to other management tasks. In this case, however, I have to bite my tongue. The 57-page report is worth examining in detail, since I can only summarize a few of its features here. It is easily accessed from the web.
The study was a serious undertaking extending over a period of 300 days. Data was gathered through 15-minute face-to-face interviews of more than 2,500 park visitors at times nearly equally divided among the four seasons. The results should be of interest not only to proponents of establishing the Buffalo Outer Harbor as parkland, but also to the Western New York tourism industry. Here are some of them:
• While about half of the visitors earned at least $75,000 per year, 28 percent earned less than $50,000. Thus the visitors represented quite reasonably the income distribution of our society today.
• Visitors traveled an average of 90 miles from their home to the park.
• Roughly one out of four visitors traveled from out of state.
• One out of five visitors said their trip was part of an overnight stay in the region. Of those, 43 percent were staying at a hotel or motel and 16 percent were staying at a campsite.
• Many adult visitors brought children with them.
• Hiking or walking was one of the more popular activities at the park, with more than a third participating.
As it is today, the Buffalo Outer Harbor differs strikingly from the Presque Isle parkland. Presque Isle has a monument to Oliver Hazard Perry, swimming beaches and its attractive recent addition, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Today our Outer Harbor fields lie fallow and mostly treeless, waiting for developers to build townhouses and shopping centers there. But it, too, has famous features, among them its two lighthouses, its common tern colony and the Times Beach enclave.
Enhanced by an environmental center like that of Presque Isle, it could do as much for Buffalo as Presque Isle does for Erie.