Sunday, June 15, 2014

Lessons from Niagara Falls

Andrea and I just returned from Ontario, where we spent the first few days of our trip at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual meeting in Niagara Falls.  It was probably the smallest place that FCM has been held - the city has a population of only 84,000 - but its tourism development means that it has a very large convention centre where the meetings took place, and there were also sufficient accommodations for the more than 2,000 delegates.

We chose not to stay in the hotel where the other delegates from Prince Albert stayed.  Instead, we found a bed and breakfast that was a fifteen minute walk from the convention centre.  I've found that staying in a bed and breakfast offers several benefits - doing so supports a local business, rather than a large chain, you get to see more of the city, you get to interact with the other guests at breakfast, you learn more about the city from the owner, and you also get a good breakfast.

Niagara Falls seems almost to be two different cities.  The one that most people see is the area focused around the falls - they are spectacular, and draw crowds from all over the world. The large hotels and the casino are all close to the falls, and boast of the view.  The Niagara Parks Commission maintains a paved pathway along the river for several miles that is suitable for both biking and walking, with beautiful gardens along both sides of the road, and features like an aviary and a butterfly conservatory.  One area, a bit down from the falls, called Clifton Hill, is the street that reminded me of the fair - wax museums, halls of fame, arcades, and a huge Ferris wheel at the top.  At the other end is Marineland, another fair-like experience.

But outside of these areas, the city has the same trouble that most cities have - maintaining a viable, older downtown.  In fact, the difference was evident just on the short walk from the B&B to the conference centre.  It was quite obvious where the tourism area started, just by the state of the sidewalks.  One of the tours offered by the conference was to that downtown area, showing us the various efforts that have been put into making it more attractive with streetscaping efforts - sadly, the many empty storefronts show that it takes more than pots of flowers and signage to attract people to a downtown.  Our host at the B&B also told us of various efforts to bring in live theatre that hadn't worked - with the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, only a short drive away, the competition is very tough.

However, even for a town that relies on tourism to stay alive, there were signs in the tourist area that stated that cars have the right of way.  If I really wanted to make an area people-friendly, I'd limit the cars, perhaps by having shuttles to the falls rather than encouraging people to drive to the falls.  Although you might think that the exorbitant parking rates ($30 a day!) might encourage people to park further away and walk a few blocks, the lots seemed to be always full.

Another tour that I found interesting was one that focused on the recreational opportunities for young people in the city.  Rather than trying to have a facility in each neighbourhood, the Boys and Girls Club has one central facility for all activities, and they work with the schools to transport kids to this facility.  Being able to focus on maintaining one facility allows them to offer a wide range of activities, and have the resources available for transportation.  This makes sense to me - more efficient and effective, benefiting the whole community.

Far less interesting to the majority of tourists is the historical background of the area.  Just up the street from our B&B was the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane - the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812.  The battlefield is also a cemetery.  We were also within walking distance of the museum, which had an exhibit devoted to the war, and another small museum across from the battlefield, which is an old reconstructed tavern from the era.  Andrea visited all of these, and was one of very few visitors.  While I realize that these sorts of attractions don't have quite the draw of the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the tourism desk at the conference centre had no information about these - we found out about them from the CAA Tour Book.  I think that the city could do more to invest in this side of tourism.

At the trade show, which always offers new and innovative ideas and products, there was a model of a self-cleaning toilet, suitable for use in parks and along trails.  It cost in the neighbourhood of $100,000, and I couldn't help but think what an asset that would be along the Rotary Trail.  I think that investing in something like this that would make the trail more attractive to users is something worth exploring.  There were also models of outdoor exercise equipment that could be used along trails - these sorts of interactive things are far more likely to attract people to the riverbank than some of the other options that are currently being presented to council.

As I usually do, I found the educational aspects of the conference most interesting, as well as the opportunity to talk with delegates from across the country about our common issues.  I'm hoping that those of us who were there bring these new ideas back to our council and committee meetings - that's the whole point of going to these conferences, of course.

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." - Augustine of Hippo

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