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Underground Railroad Heritage Center, National Comedy Center in running for USA Today award

The Underground Railroad Heritage Center in Niagara Falls and National Comedy Center in Jamestown both opened this year in Western New York.

Now both are competing for national recognition.

They are among 20 nominees for a USA Today 10 Best Readers' Choice travel award – for America's best new tourist attractions.

USA Today is conducting an online vote through Jan. 7 to determine the winner of the award, to be announced Jan. 18.

As of midday Thursday, the comedy center was in second place, trailing the Gathering Place, a riverside park in Tulsa, Okla.

The Underground Railroad museum was in eighth place.

"We only get one shot at this, so we need people to vote every day," said Journey Gunderson, executive director of the comedy center. "It truly is important for Buffalo to get on board because we’re up against metro areas the size of Chicago."

The Underground Railroad museum connects the past to the present, and talks about complex issues that exist today, said museum director Ally Spongr. Niagara Falls has many cultural aspects besides the falls, and the underground railroad existed because of the proximity to Canada and the gorge, she said.

“This is a global story. It was a global story then,” she said. “We hope people vote for us and come to visit us.”

To win best new attraction in the country would be good for Western New York, particularly because those from outside the area would be flying into Buffalo Niagara International Airport, Gunderson said.

"It’s the catalyst we need, that might not otherwise exist, to get people from all 50 states to see all that Buffalo and Jamestown have to offer," she said.

Nominees were chosen by a panel of travel writers – Eric Grossman, Gerrish Lopez and Eileen Ogintz – and USA Today editors.

The two local attractions are up against the likes of the Chicago Architecture Center, the Gateway Arch Museum and Visitor Center in St. Louis, and the Underwater Museum of Art in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.

The comedy center opened Aug. 1 in Jamestown, which used its connection to TV comedy queen Lucille Ball, a native of Celoron, to line up the $30 million project, funded by the federal and state governments and private foundations.

The interactive museum includes a range of artifacts from TV, film and stand-up comedians, including the archives of George Carlin and jokes written in longhand by Rodney Dangerfield.

In Niagara Falls, officials and activists worked for years to turn the Civil War-era Customs House next to the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge into a museum honoring the work of citizens to get escaped slaves to Canada in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to assist law enforcement in recapturing slaves on the run.

The heritage center opened May 4, next to the Amtrak station in the other half of the Customs House. The center, which cost more than $1 million, was paid for through Seneca Niagara Casino revenue.

There are several Underground Railroad museums in the United States, but this one concentrates on what happened in Niagara Falls, a major point for crossings to Canada.

The site is across Whirlpool Street from the Suspension Bridge, which, historians concluded, was crossed by famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman several times, as she guided escaped slaves to freedom.

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