If there’s one area where Erie County needs to do a better job of ensuring its future prosperity, it’s in promoting itself to the world. At a time when Buffalo is blossoming and many attractions are coming online, the county needs to make a greater financial commitment to telling its story. In comparison to other areas, the county is falling far short.
It’s not a new problem. For many years, Erie County has lagged behind its peers in spending to trumpet its assets. But it was one thing to overlook that task 10 or 20 years ago and something very different today, when Buffalo has bulked up its bragging rights.
Then, the waterfront offered little more than Rust Belt blight. Today it is humming with year-round activity at Canalside and the adjacent LECOM Harborcenter. The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Explore & More Children’s Museum has opened. Next year, a historic carousel will take its place. Soon, the public will be able help build a replica packet boat to celebrate the bicentennial of the Erie Canal.
Then, two prominent homes built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright were hollowed out shells of their early 20th century beauty. Today, nearly $60 million later, the Darwin Martin House and Graycliff have been restored and are once again ready for their close-ups.
Then, the Richardson Complex was crumbling. Designed by another famous American architect, H.H. Richardson, and opened in 1880, the imposing edifice had been all but abandoned. Today, after a $102 million resurrection, the main part of the complex has been restored as a hotel. The grounds, originally designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, have been revived, and efforts are underway to remake other parts of the sprawling structure.
There’s more. Larkinville is humming. Two golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus are on the drawing board. The once vacant tower known as Seneca One is on the way to becoming a municipal magnet. Other architectural gems dot the city. Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Bill and the Sabres all serve as lures for visitors.
Buffalo is hot. But not everyone knows it. That’s a lack of branding.
Consider the business site selectors who visited Buffalo last week and who were surprised at the strength of the city’s assets. They didn’t know because the area hasn’t told its story well enough. It’s as much a problem for business expansion as it is for tourism.
Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, makes the case clearly. Citing statistics from the county’s own tourism office, which she once led, she argues persuasively that Erie County is ceding an advantage to other destinations.
For example, Erie County, with a population of just under 1 million, funds Visit Buffalo Niagara with about $4.3 million. But Allegheny County, Pa., population 1.2 million, funds the Pittsburgh area tourism office with $12.1 million — nearly three times as much. That money makes a difference.
The pattern is replicated, to varying amounts, around the country. Cleveland’s tourism office gets $12 million. Milwaukee’s gets $8.9 million. Columbus, Ohio, gets $15.1 million. Louisville, Ken., Grand Rapids, Mich., Asheville, N.C. — they all get more, both in raw numbers and per capita.
This is a problem that predates the administration of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, but it continues under his leadership. Poloncarz, as Gallagher readily noted, devotes significant county funds to many of the area’s cultural attractions and for that he deserves credit.
But it’s essential now to put more money into spreading the word about those assets. Buffalo has received a lot of free publicity from travel writers and others in recent years and that’s invaluable. But it needs to be leveraged with a well funded, strategic plan that capitalizes on our rising reputation. It’s especially important given the need not just to blow our own horn, but to change people’s minds about what they think they know. This isn’t their fathers’ Buffalo.