Wednesday, January 26, 2011

No Goal; Wide Right; Civic Identity?

Out of the mouths of babes.

Last month as the World Junior Hockey Championships were underway in Buffalo, the Forward for Team America, Emerson Etem, tweeted this about the city, "Buffalo is a ghost town!! The worst city ever, it makes Medicine Hat look like paradise, never thought ide say that."

After this tweet went public and the city and media went ballistic, Etem was prompted to post an apology to his hosting city and the denizens citing weather as a reason why people don't come out.

So the kid said something stupid on a social network site primed for folks who love to blurt stupid things out into public light. My only concern with this is why is a teenage kid worried about his nightlife being exciting when he should be focusing on winning a Gold Medal for his country? Guess it clearly explains why Team America got trounced by the Canadians.

But does Emerson Etem have a point? Does Buffalo give outsiders the impression things close-up at 5:00 PM?

Or is it a matter of the city's and, in greater extent, Erie County's inability to market the vast amount of cultural offerings on any given night, great restaurants & a diverse music scene to visiting folks, regions beyond WNY and even to the people who call this town home?

I recall a conversation I had with a couple from Central New York. They were staying at the same bed and breakfast in Lewiston and over a wonderful breakfast we began to chat about the Shaw Fest theater offerings and how they enjoyed coming to Lewistown for the performances, the shopping and the great restaurants.

I never forgot their blank expressions when I asked them if they've ever checked out Buffalo and enjoyed the same amenities provided by the Canadian counterpart.

"We didn't know Buffalo had a theater scene." They said.

"Oh sure!" I said, "We also have some of the best restaurants, great shops and about 18 theaters to choose from." I also mentioned Buffalo attractions including architecture, art galleries and a world-class orchestra.

They innocently replied, "Gosh, we didn't know Buffalo had all that stuff."

Not from the mouth of a babe, not from a cynical homer and not from a myopic Shawphile. This came from an open-minded, older couple who actively seeks cultural destinations.

And, of course, the question then becomes, how many of these couples choose to go to places like Toronto or the Chautauqua Institution because they don't know that Buffalo has all this cultural "stuff"?

There are numerous online resource sites for inquiring tourists including the Buffalo/Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance, Theatre Alliance of Buffalo and several other grass-roots informational websites. Anyone can punch "Cultural Activities in WNY" into Google and will get an assortment of events, so why isn't this doing enough to create that great cultural tourist economic engine for the region?

In most "destination cities", there is a civic identity. This could be a distinct music scene (Austin), food culture (New Orleans) or a vivid Cultural scene (Toronto). Some cities are known to host international festivals that generate millions of tourist's dollars for local businesses. The best of them have all of these distinct qualities roll into one. In turn this identity builds civic pride felt by each resident and aids in the selling of their cities to outsiders.

In the past, Buffalo & Erie County have attempted to create civic pride:
To the most recent Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau video promoting the 2011 National Preservation Convention to be held in Buffalo:
Both presentations do their best in creating feel-good images of Buffalo, and to a certain degree indicate individual pride in a city as well as identifying city qualities, but where do these presentations indicate where Buffalo stands as a community and where the community's passion lies? Eventually begging the question in what does Buffalo truly believe in?

Buffalo has tremendous assets. UB 2020, although may be shelved, is a brilliant plan in creating jobs and supporting a top-notch educational institution, The Medical Campus is world-class with advanced research and the commercial exportation of these medical finds, and even US Congressman Brian Higgins' diligent efforts in creating an engaging and practical Waterfront, contribute to the makeup of this city's positive qualities. But how are these great attributes and many others, including a rich cultural scene, being integrated into the bigger picture and how are these resources being utilized?

That is the multi-million dollar and the good-paying job creation question.

The answer simply may be that all these educational & medical institutions, businesses, cultural groups need to become more interrelated and gain greater appreciation of the value each group provides. This comes from a cohesive message and economic plan that unites & strengthens all of Buffalo civic assets and, ultimately, creates a city identity.

Once this great meeting of all groups occurs and there is an agreed united message with a comprehensive economic plan, then all those feel-good video promotions and informational websites not only generate that elusive tourist dollar but keep that investment in the community for now and future generations.

Isn't that what legacy about?

Otherwise, young hockey players who punch into Google to see what's happening in Buffalo will get this:

Matthew LaChiusa is the Executive/Artistic Director for American Rep Theater of WNY. He is dedicated to the preservation of cultural groups and how they can benefit the community in both civic and economic growth.