A Canal Conversation

A Canal Conversation

A Canal Conversation

An array of experts talk about the Commercial Slip, the Erie Canal, and the prospects for “heritage development” in Buffalo

A Canal Conversation brought together an array of experts to talk about the Commercial Slip, the Erie Canal, and the prospects for “heritage development” in Buffalo. They outlined the potential for heritage tourism and development, identified key issues to be resolved, and raised some flags over problems and pitfalls.

This report contains a transcript of the proceedings of the conference as full as was possible to reconstruct. The elements of these proceedings were assembled from tape recordings and the texts of speakers. In one case, a text was reconstructed after the fact with the assistance of the speaker and in another, a previously published article was substituted for missing text. Nevertheless, the end result is generally faithful to the intentions of the speakers who appeared at the conference.

This summary was derived from a careful, line-by-line analysis of the content of these texts and transcripts. We tried to identify key ideas expressed by the speakers and to show when speakers used ideas in common with their colleagues. The table in the final section of this report shows that analysis in greater detail. The result, however, is a powerful distillation of the collected messages from the conference.

Telling America’s Story

Buffalo has an enormous opportunity for heritage development. We have great resources in historic buildings and places and in city fabric. More specifically the Commercial Slip is a crucial resource, as Karen Engelke put it, “a key site for the story of America.” The Erie Canal, more generally, several speakers agreed, is an attraction with “brand name recognition.” We need to find out more about what is there. But most of all, we need to maximize the potential of this opportunity.

Heritage development is not just about tourism. Rather, it is about a holistic approach to community, regional, and national development that seeks to preserve and enhance a broad range of resources both to generate greater economic prosperity and create a sense of shared experience and meaning. It involves a long-term process, best measured in decades, for which patience and perseverance are required.

Telling Buffalo’s Story

Heritage development encompasses a wide range of values. Preservation of historic buildings, sites and other resources – things that make Buffalo unique — is a key element. But it also includes preservation and repair of environmental resources; efforts to reconnect communities to accessible waterfronts; revitalizing downtowns and Main Streets; and expanding recreational resources.

The heart of the process is telling real stories. The key for heritage development is to tell the stories that explain the places and why they are important. This is partly for the benefit of visitors who will come to our community and spend money. But it is also for the benefit of community residents in understanding the meaning and values of Buffalo and its past. The stories also need to be real. Across the board, speakers emphasized the importance of maintaining the authenticity and integrity of historical places. Several warned, however, there are trade-offs to be made among authenticity and telling the story and making sure attractions are economically viable.

Economic Development

Heritage tourism, nevertheless, offers huge potential benefits for Buffalo. Tourism is a trillion dollar a year industry, rapidly growing, and heritage tourism is the hottest part of the market. To make the most of it, however, will require understanding what the market is (older Americans, aging baby boomers, residents as well as visitors), keeping in mind that it is about selling an experience, and that multi-dimensional attractions refreshed regularly are most attractive and draw the most repeat visitors.

Success in the heritage tourism market is the result of having good places. Speakers urged that Buffalo “set high standards” and “practice quality” in public spaces. This means designing for mixed uses, urban scale and density, pedestrian accessibility, and programming for round the clock and year round activity. Good “people places,” they said, are dense, diverse, active, and walkable. More specifically with regard to the Canal site, speakers urged planners to deal with the design, programming, and operations issues related to Buffalo’s “seasonality” and impacts from the presence of the Skyway over the Canal site.

It has to work financially. This will involve a combination of public and private financing, careful and creative marketing, state and federal involvement, appropriate project design, and good management. Designation as a “heritage corridor” or other official status will bring some public funding and agency expertise, but also leverage private funding. Visitor attractions need to be self-sustaining, but core interpretive programs will require some subsidy. Project design needs to reflect a workable balance between the two as well as a clear understanding of “who will come and how to get them here.” Heritage tourism takes advantage of existing infrastructure, but additional investments in “visitor infrastructure” (hotels, restaurants, entertainment) may be required. Organization and management “can’t be an afterthought.”


Process is important. Unanimously, conference speakers identified collaboration and partnerships as central to making heritage development work. They said that the conversation and participation manifested by the conference itself needed to continue. Most poignantly, several speakers emphasized the need to get beyond conflicts that have marked the process so far. “Declare the Peace of Buffalo,” Tom Gallaher said. “Channel your energy into projects not disputes,” said Tom Moriarity. Success in the process would, further, rely on strong leadership, public and private, and the contributions of many volunteers.

Take small steps and listen well. Finally, some speakers advised an incremental approach to planning, avoiding big visions and big money that result in big mistakes in favor of fixing city or region one small piece at a time. Several stressed the need for strong public support. Others identified intangible resources such as “citizens who care,” “optimism,” and “human capital,” as well as a little good luck or serendipity along the way.


A Canal Conversation, 2001