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Editorial: Falls marketing campaign aims at past miscues

It will take more than a new slogan, but a new slogan and branding campaign at least offer a start on the necessary work of making Niagara Falls what, by all rights, it should be: a dyed-in-the-wool tourist magnet.

The work, costing $500,000, began 18 months ago and produced a new strategy for promoting the city and the falls, beginning with the new catchphrase: “Niagara Falls USA: Where Adventure Comes Naturally.” It’s a clever approach to promoting the New York side’s advantages: a more natural environment than the heavily commercial Ontario side.

Not that this side couldn’t stand more commercial attractions away from the park. In truth, a number of good things are happening in Niagara Falls right now, but all of them have this in common: They are making up for disastrous mistakes that turned a sure thing into a misfire.

Travel virtually anywhere in the world and people will have heard of Niagara Falls. That’s a marketing advantage that leaders of other brands will kill for – a goose laying golden eggs.

But through bad luck, bad decisions and outright corruption, Niagara Falls and other malefactors managed to strangle the goose. Tourism in Niagara Falls is a fraction of what the Canadian side generates. There’s a lot of work to do and part of it is bragging about what the region has.

First and foremost, what it has is Goat Island – a poorly known feature that puts visitors between the American and Canadian falls, and that allows access to Bridal Veil Falls and Three Sisters Islands, just upstream from the Horseshoe Falls. It’s part tourist attraction, part woodland park, designed by none other than Frederick Law Olmsted, father of Buffalo’s park system, New York City’s Central Park and many other urban oases.

But, while mentioning Niagara Falls around the world, ask about Goat Island. Few will recognize the name or that it creates two distinct waterfalls. That, to borrow a well-worn phrase, represents a failure to communicate.

But New York has more: the gorge, which is nearly as dramatic as the falls, themselves: the narrow channel where the churning water races pell-mell to the brink of the falls; old Fort Niagara, which dates to before the French and Indian War; sites associated with the Underground Railroad; the Erie Canal locks in Lockport; and, if all of that isn’t enough, the many new attractions in Buffalo.
New York State is also working to make up for terrible decisions and lack of investment. It is reconfiguring the Niagara Scenic Parkway – formerly named for Robert Moses – both above and below the falls, where for decades it has cut residents off from their own riverfront. It is looking to purchase downtown land for development, adding – one hopes – more attractions for visitors.

And it’s paying off. Tourism reached record levels in Niagara Falls last year, but the work is hardly complete. There is still no zip line, as was proposed. There has been no serious effort to capitalize on Nik Wallenda’s 2012 tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. New York City developer Howard Milstein continues to squat on acres of land that could be put to productive use.

A new marketing campaign can’t fix all of those defects, but it can do a better job of bragging about the assets this side of the river does have. That’s a hopeful sign and critical component of the effort to reverse the fortunes of a city that has appallingly squandered its birthright.

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