Monday, March 24, 2014

A self-image problem

It's almost inevitable.

A good-sized sporting event comes to Western New York, one that attracts out-of-town visitors. The sports departments gets to work, covering the various athletic aspects thoroughly. As an example, I was a small part of the team that put together The Buffalo News' coverage of the NCAA basketball games here last week, and I was quite proud of the package that was put together on a daily basis.

And what do news departments do? Run to find some tourists and ask them if they are having a good time. If they say yes, and they usually do, we pat ourselves on the back.

This all leaves me with a feeling that the area is still insecure of its image. I've seen that in people, but it has to be a little rare for towns. Well, it's about time we got a shot of confidence.

Historically, Buffalo has some reason to be nervous about the actions of outsiders. After all, non-natives have been in charge of large segments of the economy for years. The region was a manufacturing hub for decades, which often means outside interests have placed factories here. That had some obvious benefits at one time, but our economic fate was dictated by the whims of others. That means we were hit hard when some big factories closed when economic conditions, and when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built to take a huge chunk of the shipping industry away.

The area economy is still making a transition from those days, and it's painful. We also have the usual problems associated with good-sized cities in terms of poverty. But there have been some signs of hope in recent years. The most obvious comes in the relatively recent discovery that Buffalo has a nice waterfront, and we should construct facilities for people to gather there. That's only taken a half-century, but we're making progress.

Buffalo obviously isn't New York and Chicago when it comes to hosting events, but at least the area has some experience at it. The NCAA tournament is the latest example of this. It's been held here a few times in the past 14 years, and we learned some things along the way. Back in 2000, we discovered that the biggest problem for visitors was trying to find something to eat between the first day's double-headers. That's always going to be a bit of an issue when 19,000 people are let loose on the town with 90 minutes to eat, but we've continued to get better at it. Otherwise, the region seems to be following the hospitality game plan nicely.

In short, I have plenty of confidence that we can handle such events nicely, and will be doing so for the foreseeable future. I'm actually more worried about times when there isn't an NCAA tournament around - and let's specialize on the summer months for that discussion.

We have one of the greatest natural resources to generate tourism right up the road. It's called Niagara Falls. Plenty of people go there every year when the weather turns nicer (even though my personal opinion is that the Falls are very underrated in the winter if you can stand being outside long enough to look at them). How do we get those visitors to stay longer, and how do we get more such people to show up?

Those questions have haunted us for years, and we're still working on it. It's going to take some more work as well as some international cooperation. Still, the rewards could be large.

In the meantime, I've traveled enough to realize that every region has its good points and bad points, and there are always portions worth exploring. They all can be proud of something. That's why I always look down on those who make fun of other regions of the country - in journalism, it's a sign of unimaginative writing - and why I don't do it. That's especially true when talking about my own home town.

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