NIAGARA FALLS – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s visit here last week brought a lot of excitement to the tourism industry.
Its premier tourist feature was saved with a deal allowing the Maid of the Mist to stay in business.
Its largest natural resources – Niagara Falls State Park and the Niagara Gorge – will be part of a new plan to draw ecotourists to the city.
The most blighted areas of its downtown will be targeted by a state-run development challenge.
And tourism marketers in Buffalo and Niagara Falls have pledged a more coordinated effort to market the region.
But for all the hoopla that accompanied the governor’s visit here, few details have emerged about how the supposed tourism renaissance will actually take place.
Be patient, state leaders say; specifics will emerge as part of a calculated effort to dole out the $1 billion pledged to the Buffalo Niagara region.
That effort will include the formation of advisory committees that will decide just how the strategy is implemented. The important point, leaders here said last week, is that Niagara Falls is finally a large part of that plan.
“As proposed, it would have a profound and transformative effect on Niagara Falls,” said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development Corp.
The strength of the plan, leaders said, is its focus on what some have called the low-hanging fruit of tourism development.
That is, making the best use of the two most underutilized yet promising areas of the Falls – the waterfront and the downtown core.
Plans call for the state-owned waterfront land north of the falls to be used for bicycling, hiking, fishing, rock climbing and even zip-lining.
A “reprogrammed” Niagara Falls State Park would make it a lot more fun for the growing segment of outdoor adventure tourists, officials say.
“There’s a recognition that there are a lot of activities that should be not just allowed, but encouraged and marketed,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said.
Details are uncertain, but leaders say initial discussion includes the hiring of outside vendors who specialize in those activities.
Much of the potential activity is likely to occur near the new Maid of the Mist storage site at the ruins of the Schoellkopf Power Plant, which is connected to the upper gorge land by a largely unmarked hiking trail.
The Maid will finance enhanced access to those trails, and a boat storage platform could serve as a public observation deck when the boats are not in service.
Leaders say the plans will finally give the public more access to the wonders of the gorge, which are typically overlooked by the travelers who flock to the falls.
Those changes will give way to a new emphasis on the urban core, where the most valuable but vacant properties will be targeted for redevelopment.
Plans call for the state to acquire the parcels and hold a design and development “challenge” among world-renowned companies, with the prize being a state subsidy for the project.
No specific properties have been publicly identified, though the challenge is expected to focus on areas within a few blocks of the falls.
“The place where [tourists] get their first impression of what the region is like is downtown Niagara Falls, because that’s where people are walking out of the state park looking for something to do,” Dyster said.
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said the city and the state need to target those areas for attractions.
“I think the emphasis needs to be on attractions – on something to do,” Maziarz said. “Hiking, biking, fishing is one thing, but look at the [Canadian] side. People want to see an Imax theater, a zip-line.”
“I’m not saying we all need to be honky-tonk on every corner. But look at Nik Wallenda; the exposure we received, that’s what people want to do.”
The new plans are good news to those who struggle to market a destination whose few attractions are far outnumbered by those across the river in Canada.
It’s a long time, coming, too, they said, referring to the recognition that – decades after our industrial jobs began to dry up – state leaders see tourism as a significant driver of the regional economy.
“We’re proud and happy to have a seat at the table,” said John H. Percy Jr., president and CEO of Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. “For the longest time, tourism always has been a gray area and sort of a misunderstood and underestimated industry. It’s like a whole new day to see the focus being put on these initiatives.”
Plans also call for Buffalo Niagara to develop a more coordinated marketing strategy that aims to draw Canadian shoppers and other international tourists to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
Marketing dollars for the entire region need to be beefed up, said officials who pointed to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati as cities that outspend Buffalo Niagara in promotions. Niagara Falls’ marketing bureau has been hobbled by the casino cash dispute between the Senecas and the state, and Visit Buffalo Niagara receives its funding from the Erie County budget.
“There’s an increasing recognition that we need each other for something in the tourism field,” Dyster said, referring to the Falls’ tourists and Buffalo’s cultural attractions.
The Falls’ largest and most successful tourist feature, meanwhile, will remain largely unchanged. The Maid of the Mist will upgrade its boat engines and restroom facilities and offer more online ticketing, President Christopher M. Glynn said, but the rider’s experience will remain the same.
“It’s going to be seamless to the customers in the summertime,” Glynn said.
Leaders appeared relieved that the company was able to sign a deal with the state that grants permission to build a new boat storage facility at the power plant, a year after it lost its Canadian operations.
“They have the culinary school, and they’re trying to build on that,” Glynn said of the city. “They didn’t want to let the boats get away.”