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NIAGARA FALLS – A mother and daughter from Michigan cut their trip short by a day because they couldn’t find enough to do here.

A couple from Spain visiting the United States made a stop but stayed overnight in Niagara Falls, Ont., because it had better views of the falls, and they heard that there was more to do there.

A New Jersey family came to town for a week for their son’s hockey camp. They were pessimistic they’d be able to find enough to do to fill up seven days.“There’s not much on the U.S. side,” said Rich Hall, of Sicklerville, N.J.

The falls are world-famous, among the greatest natural attractions in the entire country – but aside from getting drenched on the Maid of the Mist and maybe the Cave of the Winds, many tourists don’t see any reason to stick around.

One of the recurring tourism-related concerns of Niagara Falls is that there isn’t that much else to do there.

“The biggest thing is to come to the state park, and you could do that in a day,” said Michelle Rainey of Reading, Mich., who came to the Falls last month to get married.

Less than a quarter of the people who visit Niagara Falls stay overnight, even for just one night, compared with about 36 percent of visitors to Yosemite National Park in California, according to figures cited by USA Niagara Development Corp., the state’s economic-development arm for the Falls.

Tourism officials looking to promote economic growth want to get tourists to add one or two nights to their stay, something that would increase business for local hotels and allow visitors to spend more money at other businesses here.

Seeking a critical mass

An infusion of tourism dollars, virtually everyone agrees, would help a city that has faced decades of losing good-paying jobs, declining population and enduring economic hardships.

After all, with an attraction that visitors already travel here to see, the frustration of those who yearn to see Niagara Falls succeed lies in trying to understand how to lure visitors to stay longer.

“It shouldn’t be such a hard struggle,” said Ernest Sternberg, chairman of the University at Buffalo’s department of urban and regional planning.

Sternberg, who has studied the Falls for years, said government and private investors have to work together to create a critical mass of downtown attractions – things like distinctive museums and other places and things to do that would be unique.

Sternberg believes that starting with two or three major attractions could build the momentum needed to attract more investment.

If there’s not that critical mass, then most businesspeople would see doing something by themselves as too much of a risk, Sternberg said.

“So getting to that point is the problem,” he said. “It’s turned out to be very difficult.”

Sternberg said that things are moving slightly backward in the Falls. The demand for hotels and themed restaurants, he said, would follow once attractions are created.

“The question isn’t the buildings. The question is, what’s most enticing to make people stay?” Sternberg said.

A few years ago, state economic-development officials asked a consultant to assess what this side has in terms of things to do for visitors.

While there is an “array of attractions” available in addition to visiting the falls – the Seneca Niagara Casino, helicopter tours and the Aquarium of Niagara, for example – visitors continue to hold the perception that there isn’t much to do, according a 2011 report by HVS Consulting & Valuation Services for the state’s economic-development agency in Niagara Falls.

The report offered several explanations of why the perception exists:

• Many attractions may not appeal to a broad cross section of tourists.

• The attractions are too far apart to create a “high-energy district of visitor activities and attractions.”

• With Niagara Falls, Ont., just across the bridge, there may not be enough attractions “to keep visitors occupied.”

In terms of new attractions, Joseph “Smokin Joe” Anderson earlier this year opened Smokin Joe’s Native Center in the former Teletech building on First Street. The site now hosts nightly performances that include native dancing.

‘It’s a shame’

For shopping, there isn’t much downtown beyond vendors hawking T-shirts and trinkets. Most visitors find their best option is the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls in the Town of Niagara, a 10-minute drive from downtown.

With their son attending a weeklong hockey camp at Niagara University until 4 p.m. daily, Rich and Cathy Hall had more than enough time to wander and explore downtown.

They also went to Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ont., which offered a much more bustling atmosphere than the American side, which they said could use more restaurants, arcades and miniature golf.

“It’s a shame,” Cathy Hall said as she and her husband walked down Third Street to lunch last week.

Jacobo Cagigal and Silvia Juez visited Niagara Falls from Santander, Spain, as part of their three-week trip across the United States.

Visiting Niagara Falls was a natural stop, they said, because it’s a “famous place.”

They said they decided to stay on the Canadian side because they had read online that it had better views of the falls and more activities. They spent one night in Niagara Falls, Ont., on their trip, which also was to include stops in Las Vegas and California.

Their trip here was solely to see the falls, and they didn’t really consider what else there was to do when planning their stay.

Then there are the Leckers, who visited the Falls in July from St. Marys, Pa.

“With something for the kids, I think you’d draw a lot more,” Louann Lecker said. She suggested a water park; husband Dave suggested bicycle rentals.

The Thurmond family from St. Augustine, Fla., was attending a family reunion in Penn Yan and took a day trip to the Falls this summer.

It was the family’s first trip here. They would have liked to see more family attractions, maybe even an amusement park, said Kristin Thurmond, who took the trip with her sons, Matt and Dallas, and husband, Mike.

Their plans included a ride on the Maid of the Mist and a visit to the Cave of the Winds in Niagara Falls State Park, but no trip to the Canadian side because they didn’t have passports. The family was “not sure what else there is to do,” said Mike Thurmond.

It’s not that the city doesn’t already have something to build on.

Nik Wallenda, whose tightrope walk over the falls last year was an international event, has expressed interest in developing a permanent attraction here.

The city and the state’s economic-development arm are moving forward with proposals from two prominent developers that promise to add yet-to-be-named attractions to the former Rainbow Centre mall.

More needed for kids

And then there are the visitors who enjoy the more natural landscape on this side of the Falls.

“We like things natural. We’re naturalists,” said Kathy Harness, who visited from Bowling Green, Ohio, with her husband, Howard, for three nights in July to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary. They stayed on the American side.

The Canadian side, with the wax museums and gift shops, is too much of a commercialized tourist trap, she said.

The Harnesses visited Seneca Niagara Casino and said that overall, they were “very pleased” with the number of things to do on the American side. If anything, Kathy Harness said, she could see a need for more kid-friendly attractions.

More attractions are needed that would highlight regional assets – especially recreational things like water-related family activities, museums, nature hikes and tours of natural resources, said Ryan Coate, general manager of the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls. “More attractions create more appeal for visitors,” Coate said in an email.

Frank Strangio, whose family owns the Quality Inn on Niagara Falls Boulevard and who is head of the Niagara Falls Hotel & Motel Association, said the area must keep working to educate visitors about what’s available in the area.

Regionally, there are lot of things to do, Strangio said. The trick is being able to get the visitors out to other attractions such as the locks in Lockport and Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown. Still, there needs to be more things to do for people in the Falls, too, Strangio said. “I don’t think you can have enough attractions,” he said. “You should always strive for more.”

Melissa Luce and her daughter, Madison, 8, came to the Falls last month from Howell, Mich. They were deciding between Washington, D.C., and the Falls for their trip, and chose here because they wanted to avoid the crowds for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Luce said she was disappointed with conditions around downtown Niagara Falls, including the way some of the neighborhoods looked. Their activities included spending time swimming in their hotel pool.

“I was going to stay another day,” Luce said, “but what are we going to do?”

email: abesecker@buffnews.com