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If we were to stop thinking about the Niagara River as a boundary that divides two nations and start thinking of it as the center of one bi-national region, what would we think about? And if we were to think about this bi-national region as one of the world’s most attractive places to live, as well as one of its most popular visitor destinations, what would we do?
These were exactly the kind of questions that more than 75 U.S. and Canadian leaders worked hard to answer at Rethinking the Niagara Frontier: a Bi-national Forum, held in Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario, on March 30 and 31, 2000.
The forum featured a series of small group discussions focused on several group discussions focused on several key opportunities available to the region. These included heritage and cultural tourism; trade and transportation; brownfields redevelopent; the natural and built environment; and the developement of knowledge-based industries.
The discussions were propelled by expert presentations about what is already happening in the region in regard to parks development and tourism investment - as well as what might be possible in heritage and cultural tourism and the development of "competitive city-regions."
Overall, the event helped to create a broader awareness of the value of thinking in terms of a bi-national region, formed a clearer picture of the challenges and opportunities facing the Niagara city-region, generated increased enthusiasm for working together, and provide a real impetus for further cooperative bi-national work.
Rethinking the Niagara Frontier was not the brainchild of a single person, but the result of a coming together of thinking and working across a range of topics and sites. Part of the immediate inspiration came from work engaged by the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, including the International Brownfields Exchange (IBE) they sponsored in the Fall of 1999. Meanwhile, faculty and students at The Urban Design Project of the University at Buffalo, working in support of the IBE, focused a studio investigation on the idea of a “A City in the Park” from lake to lake along the Niagara River.
More broadly, however, the forum-- indeed the entire movement-- can be seen as the result of the convergence of broader efforts. These include investments in Niagara Parks Commission venues; economic development planning by NET Corp. in Ontario; new investments in visitor facilities in Niagara Falls, Ontario; redevelopment planning in downtown Niagara Falls, NY; cultural tourism marketing work undertaken through a committee combining Buffalo-Niagara area arts organizations and the hospitality industry; redevelopment of Niagara Falls International Airport; continuing development of the Buffalo Riverwalk; and even such far-flung efforts as the South Buffalo Redevelopment Plan.
Taken all together, this work suggested that the time was ripe to expand our thinking about the potential of this region defined by the Niagara River and to engage issues of economic development, community improvement, and environmental repair and protection as part of a larger interrelated process.
This phase of the work began in December 1999 with a meeting at the University of Buffalo to discuss the possibilities for a symposium on “a Park of the 21st Century.” As the conversation continued, however, it emerged that the notion of a park might be too limiting, even mis-leading, about the shape of the idea.
By the close of a subsequent meeting in Fort Erie in February, the concept had broadened considerably. Interest in the transformation of brownfields, and in the idea of the “City in the Park” as the core of a heritage tourism strategy remained. Concerns about trade and transportation and the development of knowledge-based industries were also incorporated.
It might be possible, it seemed, to imagine the region and rethink its future in relation to national and global trends and the local intergration of economic, environmental, and community interests.
Under the leadership of the Urban Design Project and the Waterfront Regeneration Trust, and with financial support from the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, Environment Canada, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Niagara Parks Commission, a broader table of stakeholders was set and the discussion continued.
Seldom is a thing done for the very first time; there are always precedents for action. For example, people in other places have already worked to regenerate brownfields, to develop tourism by celebrating local heritage, and to build collaboration on a regional basis and across intervening jurisdictional boundaries. Indeed, some of this is already happening here in the Niagara city-region.
The March 2000 conference brought together a series of provocative speakers to address relevant precedents and possibilities, as well as to talk about what is already happening in the region. A background paper on regional and inter-jurisdictional efforts to celebrate heritage, grow tourism, and improve the natural and built environment was also prepared. Following the forum, the Urban Design Project commissioned the creation of an historical essay to explain the broader experience of cultural and economic connection between New York and Ontario.
Brian Merrett, chair of Ontario’s Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) led off the presentations in March with a review of ongoing development of park properties that are the leading attraction of the region. Merrett called the Falls and the park the “catalyst for tourism and stimulant for economic growth.” (See page 20).
Visitation to the falls is growing rapidly. By 2002 Merrett expects 20 million people will visit annually, up 23 per cent over the last three years. One study estimated 25,000 new jobs will be created on the Canadian side alone by 2003.
Merrett said the Parks Commission faces the challenge of developing new attractions that will bring tourists and economic wealth while preserving the quality of parklands at the same time. The “greening” of NPC assets has begun with new off-site bus parking, recycling, and composting.
Other major projects are ongoing, including a people mover to connect visitors to a range of destinations and to ease traffic, parking, and pollution problems in the park; an expansive new golf complex at Chippewa; reuse of old power buildings in Victoria Park; a new marina upriver, and more.
Mary Means, a noted U.S. planner and an expert on cultural heritage corridors, talked about how the heritage corridor concept has provided a platform for boundary-crossing collaboration in dozens of settings. (See page 24).
Many regions around the United States have used the “heritage corridor” framework to develop, interpret, link, and promote a wide range of historical, cultural, architectural, natural, and other attractions for the benefit of visitors and local economies alike.
The key, Means said, is to connect a large number of individual attractions to make a comprehensive regional destination — in short, to make the whole much more than the sum of its parts. In this regard, the Niagara Falls region has far more to offer than other places, even before considering the Falls itself.
Beyond the immediate benefits, heritage corridor development has provided a non-threatening point of entry into the otherwise difficult work of multi-jurisdictional cooperation. Heritage corridor development here could lay the organizational groundwork for other bi-national planning and development initiatives.
Robert C. O’Dell, a regional planner who has consulted with the Niagara Economic Tourism Corporation (NET Corp.), made the case for putting tourism development front and center in the broader effort toward economic development in the Niagara Region. (See page 28).
O’Dell outlined roughly $6 billion (Cdn) of current or planned investment in visitor facilities and related infrastructure on the Ontario side of the river and outlined the demand for nearly half again as much in hotels, entertainment centers, and retail.
Tourism, he said, is the largest and fastest growing economic sector in the world. With one of the planet’s great natural wonders at the center of the region, Niagara should expect to win more than its share of that growth. Visitor traffic is expected to rise sharply, with employment and revenues in the tourism industry growing apace.
Ongoing, planned and recommended investments are part of a broader strategy for economic development in Ontario’s Niagara Region. NET Corp., a private entity designated by provincial government to map regional development strategy and action, has identified five priority areas for investment: telecommunications-dependent sectors such as call centers, data processing, and distance learning; high-tech manufacturing; specialized agriculture; and adult lifestyle communities. But tourism remains the key.
John Farrow, President of the Canadian Urban Institute, shared some of his recent work about successful city-regions. At a minimum, Farrow said, to see the opportunities for the Niagara region we need to stop focusing on the border and start looking at a region that encompasses two jurisdictions. (See page 32).
region’s conventional assets are significant.
Toronto-Buffalo-Rochester is the fourth largest urban region in
North America and the second fastest growing.
It has a world class attraction, and an international “brand name”
in Niagara Falls. Geography
is a funnel for economic activity — whatever travels between Southern
Ontario and the eastern U.S. must come through this region.
The region also has some unconventional assets. Farrow urged the group to see the differences between the U.S. and Canada in tax and regulatory regimes, educational and medical systems, wage rates and skill packages as opportunities rather than burdens.
“If we create a region that crosses the border, we begin to create the type of tension that, if used properly, leads to the type of innovations that create value and then wealth. The goal is to be world competitive, to be world class.”
On the afternoon of the second day of the March 2000 bi-national forum, participants sat down together in small groups to talk about the specific needs of, and real opportunities for, regional cooperation.
Each of the nine small group discussions focused on one of the topics - heritage and cultural tourism, improvements to the natural and built environment, development of trade and transportation, redevelopment of brownfields, and development of knowledge-based industries. Facilitators took very good notes - the full text of those notes is available at the Urban Design Project internet website: http://urbandesignproject.ort and summaries of those conversations are provided below.
Participants in two sessions on heritage and cultural tourism agreed the region has a rich and diverse array of assets - arts, performance, entertainment, architecture, history, nature, industry, sports, recrewation and more - that beg to be linked, interpreted, and marketed as a single destination.
A number of obstacles were noted, however. Not all of the potential players in development are equally ready to participate. There is a lack of coordination in many areas, a lack of political cooperation and consensus, and a lack of popular support, funding, local pride, and local understanding of the region. While coordination is needed, there is a need to balance that against the demand for diversity.
The potential benefits to heritage and cultural tourism development, however, were clear. Attracting more visitors, getting them to stay longer and spend more, will create more jobs and support a better quality of life for residents, while improving the self-image of the whole region.
Two strategies for pursuing the opportunity emerged from these discussions. First, participants suggested creation of a bi-national organization to provide leadership, coordination, and information toward bi-national planning and development. Such an organization should include representatives of government, culture, tourism, marketing, education, corporate, environment and other private sector groups.
Second, participants recommended conducting an inventory of assets as the first step toward a master plan. There is a need to identify and evaluate sites and possible thematic groupings of attractions, as well as to assess current cross-border marketing efforts, leadership, and information, and to strategize pursuit of funding from public, private, and philanthropic sources.
Other provocative ideas that came out of the discussion of strategies included formation of a bi-national youth leadership group, creation of a regional historical organization, and work on establishing standards of quality in heritage and cultural destinations.
Participants in one discussion saw a great opportunity to consider the natural and built environments as related to economic development; to link the environment with cultural heritage and history; to capitalize on tremendous resources; and to “re-imagine” the region.
Those in another group described the opportunity more in terms of the great assets of the region, including the river, the region’s geology and climate, as well as a host of human-made assets - grain elevators, hydroelectric palnts, canals, historic architecture, transportation links, "real cities" and "quaint hamlets."
There was strong sentiment in both groups, however, that regional planning is a key strategy for improving the natural and built environment.
Some participants called for a comprehensive inventory of re-sources, existing plans, land uses, organizations, jurisdiciton, and economic sectors as a mean sof building from on-going work.
Participants also emphasized the need to develop clear principles for a regional plan in order to emphasize diversity, ecosystem thinking, sustainability, and appropaiate development. THe plan shoul dwork to make the region a world-class destination; build on existing assets of river, parks, and green infrastructure; and link people, parks and attractions to each other in "one region."
Some participants cited the importance of green ingrastructure in a plan, but stresseed its inter-jurisdictional nature and the potential for a heriatge corridor. A possible role for UB "State of the Region" work was also defined.
Specific recommendations from the discussion groups included:
Placing the focus on in vestment in Niagara Falls, NY: Participants emphasized investment in the U.S. side of our bi-nations city as a key to any re-gional development strategy. The region can'g be great if Niagara Falls, NY is wanting. Make it the "Destination of the Millennium."
Putting an emphasis on doing what's possible: Some of the problems we face are huge. We need to sort out small and achievable projects and start working on them. That will bring us closer to solbing the big problems.
Making a determination to re-imaging the region: By focusing on different images of the region - for example, as a region of organic and specialty agricultural produstion - we can begin to enlarge the possibilities for the future. Cultural, heritage, and natural assets are all part of this process of re-imagination.
Participants in two sessions outlined a range of strategies for fulfilling the region's pooortunities in trade and transportation. Attention was drawn to the need to use technology more effectively to speed the transit of people and goods across the border. The use of databases, computers, identification tech-niques, telecommunications, etc. to "pre-clear" or otherwise speed up the crossing, was suggested. Participatnts also identified the need to study the "border business," drawing onthe lesosns of other regions where borders play a major role in the move-ment of goods and people. How do they do it? How can they teach us to do it better?
The need to coordinate planning for development of a number of transportation corridors was also emphasized. Participants identified a need to work on them as multi-modal facilities, including pedestrian, air, andrail, as well as truck and auto, and to make sure the planning is bi-national and multi-agency. It was also proposed that planners conduct a comprehensive invnetory of visitor attractions that need to be linked as preamble to new investments in transport facilities.
Other specific proposals included:
Building a people mover that will span the river, connecting visitor attractions with visitor acommodations and travel hubs like the Niagara Falls International Airport, Greater Buffalo International Airport or downtown Buffalo. Similar strategies for non-auto, non-truck transportation were outlined in both sessions.
Promoting "green alternatives:" The second grouop offered a range of ideas for reusing old bridges ("Ponte Vecchio" on the old Peace Bridge; pedestriand on the CP Rail bridge); new bridges (pedestrian or bike crossings from Grand Island to Ontario); and reconfigring existing connections (such as the Robert Moses Parkway) for environmentally friendlier uses.
Creating a lake port in Niagara County, NY to receive ferry traffic carrying trucks to and from the Greater Toronto Area: One participant suggested this as a way to make the trip faster, and to take the load off existing corridors. The business valus of this idea remains to be shown, and U.S. highway links to the port would need to be upgraded.
There are many parts of the Niagara Region where soil and groundwater quality has been impacted by previous industrial uses. Participants identified the obstacles to reuse of these properties and sketched a framework for action for improving their attractiveness to investment.
Overall, participants saw in the reuse of old industrial lands a combined opportinity, not only to improve the environment, but to create menaingful new jobs, restore local tax bases, and develop a new sense of place by celebrating local heritage and reconneting dererlict lands to surrounding communities.
They stated a number of key premises. There is a lot oa acreage. Much of it is strategically located on waterfronts and served by infrastructure. These sites offer the opportunity ot pursue economic, environmental, and comunity goals simultaneously. The regional economic situation (NFTA, tourism, recent investments, etc.) offers new potential to trigger action on these sites.
There are a number of issues to resolve. "Greenfield" sites are often cheaper to develop because of legal issues attached to brownfields. The real estate market in Erie an dnIagara counties is weak, so there is little stimulus for redevelopment. A comprehensive, visionary strategy - integrating economy, ecology, and community - could attract the new capital we need.
Each strategy has a distinct focus, but both emphasized the need for defining a common vision, creating a regional plan, and making incremental progress.
Specifically, it was recommended that we:
Work to improve tools for transformation — regionally — with a plan that integrates economic development, ecological improvement, and community objectives. That means providing financial incentives such as tax credits, job re-training, and ED Zone designations, while making the decision-making process “transparent” and geared to build consensus.
Implement demonstration projects using “brownfields as a canvas for new possibilities.” We need to frame the vision, make a plan, inventory sites, prioritize innovative ideas for reclamation and reuse, address the legal barriers, coordinate action, and make sure the public knows about the successes.
Participants in the discussion on knowledge based industries saw the opportunity to make knowledge the key value-adding component of the regional economy and a generator for new job creation. They suggested we could use our problems as a resource in the sense that problems help us produce knowledge as we work to solve them.
Pursuing this strategy would mean working to link universities, corporations, government, and communities in this process. It would also mean making quality of life a key issue, as a way of drawing and keeping brain-workers, and as something these new industries would help produce. The proposed next steps were simply to ”go to work.” If we start working on the problems at hand, everything we need to decide about partners, processes, organization, implementation and more, will fall into place.
Included in the specific strategies for developing knowledge-based industries were: creating a “brownfields institute” and market ourselves as “the guys who solved Love Canal”; establishing a cross-border university or an alliance of institutions to begin to organize the knowledge that comes from working on indigenous problems; developing industry-specific knowledge, such as the knowledge that comes out of the region’s wine-making industry; developing and marketing knowledge about the “border business”; and establishing a “peace institute” or siting a unit of the United Nations here.
A report on the March forum in newsletter format was sent to all participants and is available from both the Urban Design Project and the Waterfront Regeneration Trust. A full report of the March forum is available at the web-site of the Urban Design Project at the University at Buffalo—http://urbandesignproject.org .
The response to the collaborative, bi-national approach was enthusiastic, and people were eager to participate directly. Planning for a follow up conference began over the summer, and working groups met on both sides of the river. Out of these discussions emerged the idea that the enterprise needed a strategic focus. “Natural and heritage development” was chosen.
The selection of a strategic focus was not intended to eliminate the other themes. Rather, a focus on natural and heritage development was understood to be a way to focus on immediate efforts on achievable goals. At the same time natural and heritage development could be seen as a point of entry to issues of environmental quality (built and natural), reclamation of industrial lands, trade and transportation, and even knowledge-based industries.
Indeed, a number of projects were already moving forward by that time: a tourism marketing study for the U.S. side; a cross-marketing project for arts and cultural organizations in Western New York; discussions about an international people mover for Niagara Falls; continuing work on both sides of the Falls to improve park infrastructure; broader bi-national cooperation on transportation; and much more.
In November 2000 more than 70 participants reconvened in Lewiston, NY for a “Roundtable” on the natural and heritage development theme. It was agreed then to move aggressively on building the theme toward a major action-oriented event in May 2001
The approach to Rethinking the Niagara Frontier assumes that public conversation, exchange of information, celebration of good ideas, and the sharing of success stories together provide a kind of coordinating power for action across a bi-national region.
Whether participants act alone within their area of responsibility, collaborate informally with other organizations, or participate in more formal federating structures is not the crucial issue. More important is whether or not they participate in the process of defining a publicly shared vision of the region and acting upon it.
1. Aerial View of the Niagara Gorege. Irene Rota. Waterfront Regeneration Trust