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History and Economic Development:Some Lessons from Western New York

There are two regions which have Path through History plans listed on the ten Regional Economic Development Councils (REDEC) for New York State.

I’ve reviewed the Long Island region proposal here.  As will be seen, there are certain overlaps and parallels in their respective plans and differences as well between their plans and those of the Western New York region, which I’ll cover here.

One point they have in common is that both Path regions coincide with the REDC regions. At least they did as of the Path kickoff meeting, August 28, 2102. The slick glossy booklet distributed at the meeting has a Western NY region which coincides with the REDC region. However on the Path website now, the ten regions of the August 2012 have become 11 regions with Western NY divided into Greater Niagara and Chautauqua-Allegheny. The text does refer to Allegany which is the correct spelling for the county but maybe the Allegheny River which flows through Cattaraugus County on its way from and back to Pennsylvania is meant by the regional name. Perhaps Path could explain the spelling.

I also wonder why Path made the change to divide Western NY into two regions after printing all those slick glossy booklets with the single region. Was it I Love NY’s idea? The Western NY plan expresses an inquiry that inadvertently suggests that I Love NY was responsible for the regional division and the “Allegheny” spelling. Western NY wrote in support of:

Be consistent in naming of the region. For example, although Western New York is one of the ten Path Through History regions, on the I Love New York website, it is broken up into two regions: Buffalo-Niagara and Chautauqua-Allegany. Cattaraugus is left out of the labels.

Actually that is incorrect. ILoveNY designates the region as Chautauqua-Allegheny as does Path and not Chautauqua-Allegany. However it does refer to the Chautauqua-Allegany Regional Tourism Office. An internet search for “Allegheny, NY” turns up lots of entries for “Allegany, NY” but nothing for “Allegheny, NY” except on the ILoveNY website. Perhaps one goal would be to standardize the spelling. This problem also reveals who is calling the shots on the Path program: ILoveNY is in charge. Path changed its regions to conform to the ILoveNY regions and spelling. It is the ILoveNY tourist industrial complex and not the history community that is the beneficiary of the state’s largess as previously reported.  So what seems like a small item actually shows where the power is.

I suspect that at the time Western NY submitted the plan, it had not checked the Path website and was referring to the slick glossy booklet. If it had looked, it would have realized that there are now 11 regions not 10 and that the Western NY region no longer exists. It also would know that Path has picked “I Love Lucy” for the symbol of “Chautauqua-Allegheny” so there is no need for the WNY Tourism Work Group to spend any time determining how to brand itself. The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center appears on the one-page ILoveNY website for the region; it does not appear as in the list of priority sites for the Western NY region in the slick glossy booklet. The Chautauqua Institute has priority there. Again one observes who is in charge of the Path project. It is not the history community. By the way, the less said about the butchering Path did to the Mohawk Valley when it changed its website to conform to ILoveNY the better.

At the grassroots level, Western NY has decided to ignore both Path and ILoveNY and to operate as if it is one region coinciding with the REDC.

Exactly right.

That being said, the region still suffers from an identity issue besides being divided by Path and ILoveNY..

To the world, and much of the country including many in our state, New York is equated with New York City and by some definitions, everything outside of the New York City Metropolitan area is referred to as “Upstate.” Western New York has a long and frustrating history of competition for funding with “Downstate.” Even the State Museum in Albany, whose mission is statewide, barely represents Western New York in exhibits, or even through items and publications for sale in the gift shop.

To most New Yorkers, Poughkeepsie, Plattsburgh, and Buffalo are all upstate as if only one regional designation was needed for all of them. Furthermore Western NY has an additional problem as it noted in its proposal:

Rethink how Western New York is portrayed outside of the region. For example, regions are almost always listed alphabetically, so Western New York is always last.

BUFFNACC Falls (Buffalo, Niagara, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua) would place it first!

A second consideration is to obtain recognition for tourism by the REDC for one’s region. This may be part of the reason why the group did not divide in accordance with the Path regions. REDC is where the money is for the history community, not Path or ILoveNY. The Western NY region accomplished this goal as stated in its plan:

In its strategic plan for economic development for the region, the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council has identified tourism as one of the eight industry sectors in the region where we already enjoy high concentrations of employment, potential growth in jobs and wages is greatest, and we possess some kind of unique asset or advantage. Tourism is also one of the three priority sectors identified in the related Investment Development Plan, better known as the “Buffalo Billion,” with the potential to form the foundation Buffalo’s next economy and to drive economic growth, employment, productivity and wealth.

Our plan complements the Regional Economic Development Council’s “A Strategy for Prosperity” by creating a roadmap that will attract heritage tourists to “the region that built America.

It must be noted here that even if the history community in a region should be able to organize itself that does not mean the County Tourist Departments in that region or the REDC will necessarily adopt tourism, cultural heritage tourism, or history tourism as key industry sector. The REDC’s were created in 2011 with Path created in 2012. During this time has the County Tourist Departments in your area reached out to the history community? If you have reached out to the County Tourist Department in your county, have you been supported? If the County Tourist Department has not reached out to in the two years the REDC has been in existence and your efforts to reach out to it for the REDC or the Path have been unsuccessful, then there is little reason to except anything to change in the current political environment in your county. This means for the history community, you may be on your own.

In Western NY, as in the Long Island, the regional task force has reached out to a broad range of organizations from its counties including representatives from all Tourism Planning Agencies, cultural and historic sites/areas, historians, Empire State Development, private foundations and heritage areas as part of its collaborative effort to create a shared vision for the region. The working group includes:

Allegany County
Greater Allegany County Chamber

Cattaraugus County
Cattaraugus County Director of Economic Development, Planning & Tourism

Chautauqua County
Chautauqua County Historian
Chautauqua County Convention and Visitors Bureau
Fenton History Center

Erie County
Baird Foundation
Buffalo History Museum
Darwin Martin House
Erie Canalway Heritage Area
Springville Center for the Arts

Empire State Development
Thruway Authority

Niagara County
Niagara County History Center
Niagara Falls National Heritage Area (and Niagara University
Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation
Old. Ft. Niagara Association
Seneca Nation of Indians

Arts Services Initiative of Western New York
NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Preservation
Preservation Buffalo Niagara
Visit Buffalo Niagara
WNY Library Resource Council

The working group also includes a consultant. As seen with the Long Island proposal, there is a need for someone outside the day-to-day responsibilities at a site or with a day-job to co-ordinate and manage the project. Not to belabor the point, this is why I recommended that the $100,000 for each region through the Path project be used to do exactly that rather than be allocated in dribs and drabs to multiple sites across huge areas. In this case, the region was able to obtain funding in January 2013 from The Baird Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo that enabled it to hire a consultant.

As part of its efforts, the WNY Tourism Work Group conducted three public forums. One critical skill which the working group demonstrated in this process was that it listened to its constituents. That may not always be the case in each region. Although it began to some extent as did all Path regional groups as a group meeting in secret to select sites for the slick glossy booklet distributed at the kickoff meeting August 28, 2012, it quickly expanded its perspective from the Albany-defined one. It inventoried approximately 50 sites in the region according to Path themes and issues like accessibility. Its proposal to the REDC demonstrates that the WNY Tourism Work Group morphed into a true regional group beyond the “crown jewel” sites.

Exactly right.

The group also recognized the need to go beyond the officially designated themes presented at the kickoff.

As the planning process continued and our plans were shared at three public meetings throughout the region, it became clear that our Vision Plan would need to make room for additional thematic stories and places in order to include the many assets identified through the public process.

Although the eight [Path] themes described above were affirmed through the public meetings, we realized that the Western New York region has many Paths Through History; some of the attractions along the paths are “works in progress,” but will still have appeal to many heritage tourists. There are literally hundreds of groups and organizations throughout the region
working to restore historic buildings, revitalize communities and educate both visitors and residents about our region’s history.

Exactly right.

So what does Western NY plan to do?

The WNY Tourism Work Group calls for increased cooperation and collaboration within the region. Remember the motto: “United we stand, divided we fall.” It advocates:

Increase coordination and collaboration throughout the region. Much more can be accomplished by working together than by working alone.

The present lack of coordination and collaboration is unacceptable and will lead to dire results.

Coordination and collaboration have been slow to take hold in the region. The region needs to foster a culture that supports working together. One example is our failure to embrace regional planning, leading often to uncoordinated development and decision making. Cross-county promotion of tourism has also been limited.. The call for coordination is across all levels, from the most local to regional, NYS, and federal agencies. This tourism initiative may serve as a shared beginning with positive results throughout the five county region.

Exactly right. Couldn’t this passage have been written in every region only adjusting for the number of counties? The over decade-old Hudson Valley Ramble is a perfect example of exactly this absence of coordination and collaboration as is the Path through History Weekends where every organization does its own thing. The WNY Tourism Work Group knows there is a better way.

To help facilitate cooperation and collaboration, the WNY Tourism Work Group champions, surprise, surprise, a regional conference.

Sponsor an annual conference for regional heritage attractions to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas, to discuss and align themes and to provide education about how to enhance the visitor experience.

Obviously exactly right. There should be ten of these annually and the ten people who Path should hire for each region with its $1,000,000 should be responsible for them as well as to meet statewide to coordinate and consolidate the results. Obviously I am dreaming.

The WNY Tourism Work Group has identified critical problems that transcend the region and eventually will require state-wide leadership and solutions.

Limited Public Transportation

Few tourist destinations [meaning Niagara Falls] that attract 8 million annual visitors have such a limited public transportation system. Tourists and visitors frequently note the difficulty in navigating public transportation and share their frustration and disappointment with others. Negative word-of-mouth and internet postings will counteract all the best marketing promotions if people cannot easily find their way or find transportation once they arrive, ruining a holiday.

The WNY Tourism Work Group also had a longterm vision and goal.

Advance plans for high speed rail.

These are serious issues and I will address future posts to Amtrak, MetroNorth, and buses.

Confusing Signage

A number of challenges related to signage were mentioned by Work Group members and by the public. There are currently multiple agencies that manage signage from multiple heritage areas, trails, byways, attractions and destinations, in addition to road signs, directional signs, rest stop signs and more. The inconsistent, often lacking, way finding signage together with a confusing plethora of branded program signs shows the area is struggling to become visitor ready despite the strength of many local attractions. A “secret shopper” could point out the absence of clarity and/or ease of wayfinding very quickly, and could suggest many ways to improve the coordination of general directional signs along/to/from major roads. This is a longstanding
problem well-recognized by local people in every community in the region.

The problem of signs was addressed in an earlier post about the Path project since the unknown amount of money it spent on adding new signs to the mix were identified as one of the primary achievements of the project.

Limited Funding for Sites

The economic climate and the number of sites that compete for limited resources for capital improvements, staffing and programs to engage visitors in exciting ways make it especially difficult for small nonprofit groups to make their sites “visitor ready.”As noted in the Regional Economic Development Council’s Strategic Plan, quality tourism products are underdeveloped. This does not mean incapable or unworthy, but rather undercapitalized and under-invested for some key skills and capacity.

Path and ILoveNY are irrelevant here and your REDC may or may not buy into the premise that the history tourist infrastructure needs funding. There is a lot of talk about getting people to sites but very little about the state of the sites to handle increased volume should the tourists materialize.

Awareness of Residents

A frequent concern among destinations is local residents’ lack of awareness of sites right in their own communities. Residents were mentioned by a number of people during the public meetings as an important market for promotion and advertising activities. Path Through History can include a “Be a tourist in your own backyard” campaign.

The exact same message was delivered at the Mid-Hudson Path meeting I attended in January and has been the subject of posts to New York History. The biggest audience for local historic sites are the people in the community, county, region, and state who don’t visit the places in their own backyard. People from Pennsylvania, England, and Asia aren’t going to sustain the historic sites; it’s the people in the communities who visit them as school kids, who become members as adults, and who assist as volunteers who will. ILoveNY and Path don’t care about that; community health and wellbeing aren’t their mission. REDC’s may not care about that either if it can’t see an immediate payoff.

The WNY Tourism Work Group knows that it is fighting an uphill battle. It knows that visitors and cultural heritage tourism are not synonymous. Last year I saw Wallenda walk across Niagara. I also visited Old Fort Niagara. I did so because I was in Niagara Falls for the NYSHA conference and so naturally we visited an historic site, one related to the War of 1812 which was a theme of the conference. How many of the other Wallenda visitors also visited an historic site? The WNY Tourism Work Group knows that the millions of visitors to the Falls don’t necessarily visit a single historic site. At Lake George, one may say that the summer recreational visitors do visit an historic site because Fort William Henry is right there, hard to miss, and if you are there with a family sooner or later you are going to go there.

Buffalo has built five hotels by the airport over the past five years and plans two more. Parking spaces have increased from 1500 in 1997 to 7000 today. Why? Because of the Canadians who drive to New York for flights from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. That’s real money. Does it help the history community? Does it in Plattsburgh where something similar happens?

How many casino visitors there combine gambling and cultural heritage tourism? In my own county of Westchester as an example of the priorities, there is now a shuttle bus between 12 hotels and Empire City’s gaming halls in Yonkers. Are there any shuttles to historic sites? Are they any Paths? Has the Westchester history community even met in the nearly one year since Cuomo launched the Path though History project?

Despite its name, the WNY Tourism Work Group is concerned about the long term health of its communities in ways elected officials, state organizations, and county tourist officials frequently are not. The proof is in the absence of other regions achieving what Western NY has achieved. The following words should be the basis for push for cultural heritage tourism throughout the state.

Research on heritage tourists points to their high level of sophistication and their expectation of adventure and discovery. Simply put, mainstream attractions won’t be enough. Heritage tourism should make a community a better place to live as well as a better place to visit. For heritage travelers, the visitor experience is about much more than a destination’s “attractions.” It’s about discovering what makes a city, town, or region distinctive, authentic, and memorable. It’s about the experience of “place.” Recognizing local history by communities and sharing this history with others benefits both the community and its visitors.

Well said. Exactly right. Is anybody in Albany listening? How about the other regions?


7 thoughts on “History and Economic Development:Some Lessons from Western New York

  1. “By the way, the less said about the butchering Path did to the Mohawk Valley when it changed its website to conform to ILoveNY the better.”

    On the contrary, your post on western NY was great. It brought to my attention some issues that I had not considered. Some of us would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the Path debacle in the Mohawk Valley.

    1. People in the Mohawk Valley are struggling with that very issue. Following an earlier post about the REDCs and the regional designations there was some chatter within the Mohawk Valley community about its loss of region name and its being split up. In this instance the Path through History and REDCs seem to have a better handle on the name than ILoveNY. Mohawk Valley like Hudson Valley and Champlain Valley is an easy name to market and is far superior to Central New York. My advice to the Mohawk Valley is to ignore Path and ILoveNY and focus on the REDC: that’s where the money is and it has the right name.

  2. Note on spelling: Allegany County is the correct spelling. The town of Allegany and Allegany State Forest are located in Cattaraugus County. The spelling Allegheny/Alleghany is only used in Pennsylvania, which has a town, a county, a national forest and mountains by that name. The only exception is the Allegheny River which flows north from Pennsylvania into Cattaraugus County for about 30 miles before returning south to Pennsylvania.

    1. I confess I was somewhat in a state of shock when I realized that ILoveNY used the incorrect spelling and that Path through History apparently copied it over to its website for the region designation. Your information is correct and makes one wonder if the people in Albany really know the state. Thanks for writing.

  3. At long last, someone has recognized the work that Western NY is doing! Peter is right to point out that we have a diversity of groups participating, including tourism professionals. Part of this project’s success comes from the fact that WNY “gets” heritage and cultural tourism. It’s a key part of our economy and the Buffalo Billion plan clearly includes tourism as an economic driver.

    We’re all optimistic that the Path project will increase visitation and lengthen stay.

    1. Hi Tom,

      Thanks for responding. As a professor who has put together TAH programs, you know what is involved in organizing and planning visits to multiple historic sites combined with lectures over a week. That’s the kind of work which is needed to create true paths be it on the War of 1812, another topic, or a geographic based one.

      It takes time but it is the only way a true path/route/trail/itinerary/historyhostel/teacherhostel can be created. Wallenda is fine for a one shot appearance but sustained cultural heritage tourism requires more.

      Good luck with your efforts and I hope WNY will showcase what it achieves at various state-wide conferences.


      PS NYSHA is on the Hudson and APNYS is in Saratoga in 2014 so you are going to have to come to our side of the state!

  4. With the New York State debt lingering at well over the $3oo billion mark I don’t hold out much hope for help from Albany. In Suffolk County, Long Island, we have an organization called ASCHS (pronounced ashes) which stands for the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies, wherein we can communicate with each other on a formal basis, schedule tours to our respective historical sites, and work in unison to foster awareness to the general public. So far it’s been a win-win for all involved.

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