Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Canal towns need to be ready for the next Geraldo

A few weeks back, TV personality Geraldo Rivera and his brother Craig made a voyage across New York on the Erie Canal. It was met with fanfare from folks who live or do business along the Canal. They were excited that a celebrity would be passing through and might stop at their favorite watering hole or café.

I too was excited and had sent some encouraging Twitter messages about the canal to Geraldo and those who might see him sail (those tweets were then featured in the Buffalo News’ and Syracuse Post-Standard’s reports about his trip).

My interest was a little different. I looked at his tour as a springboard to bigger things. Sure, it was cool to see Geraldo enjoy the hospitality of Medina, for example, but more so I was keen on the national spotlight that was cast on the canal. Clinton’s Ditch is an engineering marvel and a beautiful waterway – anytime that someone can get the world to see that, that’s good for the upstate economy. 

Realize this could be – and is – happening all the time, just not with the likes of someone with a household name like Geraldo. Nowadays, though, everyone is connected to the internet. Social media, blogs, and websites have made similar travels by “regular” people (families, retirees, adventurers, college kids between semesters) accessible to the masses.

I see it all the time. Every day I do a 24-hour Google search of all things Gasport and quite often throughout the summer it discovers the blogs and travel logs of vacationers tackling the canal. They’ll praise, critique, savor, or bemoan their various stops along the system.

It’s great to see outsiders, for the most part, championing the cute little burgs and hamlets.

Occasionally, though, you’ll see a bad report of an unwelcoming town.

We can’t let that happen. We need to roll out the red carpet for every sailor -- doesn’t matter if it’s Geraldo Rivera or Joe Blow. The whole world can now follow peoples’ travels, and it’s that online word-of-mouth that can bring more vessels to our waters or keep them away.

Here are some simple suggestions to the dozens of towns along the 363-mile stretch of the canal.

Provide amenities. Not every village has the space, budget, and infrastructure to provide a picnic area, restroom, and showers to boaters like Middleport does. But, we all can try. Any town with a lift bridge should maintain a port-a-potty (that should fit in the municipal budget) and work with the New York Power Authority (which oversees canal operations) to provide 110-volt hook-ups that could start from the bridgemaster’s shacks. Those two simple niceties could warrant a stop by a boater who might wander your streets and grab a bite to eat or buy something.   

Dress up your canal district. Some of the downtown canal villages are a little run down – it looks like their heydays were back in the canal’s freight era of the mid-1800s. It shouldn’t be that way. The canal is the gateway to your community. Make it look that way. This isn’t an endeavor that will require taxpayer funds. Just look at the sweat equity invested by the wonderful volunteers of the Gasport Beautification Committee. They’ve made downtown look nice with flower pot contests, signage, painting, and regular clean-ups.

Market your port online. Travelers get their information from the internet. They’ll plot their stops based on what they find online from other boaters or from community websites. Not every town has its own Chamber of Commerce to do market, but every town does have a clerk or volunteers who could update their website with a tourism page or make a Facebook page. Give visitors reasons to dock at your bridge and explore your neighborhood. List the events, things to do, and places to eat and shop.

Build an information center. For voyagers who make an impromptu stop, you want to prompt them to stay a while. If every town erected a kiosk at their docking area they could educate folks on the same sort of things that the website would mention – history, things to do, places to go. What would help immensely is a tri-fold brochure that a visitor could pull from the kiosk to use as a directory and map (plus, it’s easier to update than a large painted map/sign of town if businesses close).

Train service workers to treat everyone as a guest. I’ve written of this before – one of my hang-ups with too many Niagara County restaurants and pubs is the assumption that wait staff make that everyone is from around here. The greater Niagara Falls area is a world-class destination (and as an outcome of that so is canal). Yet, I rarely hear workers ask where people are from. That can lead to great conversations like, “Ooo! Do this!” or “Do that!” Front line workers, like they are for their own business, are the best cheerleaders for our entire community. Use them that way.  

It’s hopeful that these practices – and many more – will further help to highlight the Erie Canal as a place to travel. It’s a great public asset that we need to promote and utilize. You never know when the next Geraldo will come to town.     

From the 04 June 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, May 25, 2018

A struggling press is nothing to celebrate

Over the past two weeks the Buffalo News shrunk dramatically. The Monday to Saturday editions dropped from 4 sections to 3 while the Sunday paper saw the Niagara Sunday section eliminated entirely. Within days of that change we learned that numerous reporters there were offered or took buy outs – 9 writers in all were shown the door.

If, as this was happening, you looked through Twitter or Facebook you would have found hordes of people reveling in this. It was the usual schlock – the News is too liberal; it’s only fit to line bird cages; no one reads newspapers anymore.  

It was disheartening, and aggravating, to see such behavior. If you’re celebrating the end of the press, you’re celebrating the end of America.

Our country cannot survive without newspapers, whether in the print version or in their modern online style.

The strength and character of our constitutional republic is contingent upon an informed citizenry, which is why the forefathers found it necessary to recognize the value of the press in the First Amendment. News agencies -- large and small, national and local -- keep all levels of government in check by investigating improprieties, shining light on policy both active and proposed, and sharing the socioeconomic issues that force government and civic action. A good newspaper will educate, and hopefully inspire, the electors and the elected alike.

Take that away and what are you left with? Mostly incredibly-questionable social media accounts and websites, many of which are created by political parties and biased sources that have their own special interests and not the interests of the masses at heart.

Look at the “news” that drove both sides in the past election; it didn’t matter if it was pro-Trump Russian websites or domestically-made Democratic initiatives masquerading as news entities…that was what dictated much of what was shared online and around the water cooler. A discerning eye knew that most of those sources couldn’t be trusted but many Americans ate it up, especially if it played to their biases. If newspapers disappear, will such free-wheeling disinformation become the norm?

Newspapers, on the other hand, utilize reporters and editors who were trained in (and accountable to) integrity and how to get to the bottom of a story, and those newsrooms have the resources, employees, time and public trust to expose and/or expound upon the issues.

It doesn’t end there. The micro is just as important as the macro with the press. Your neighborhood news outlets do things at the most local level that you cannot get from Facebook – they provide a single source that offers in-depth coverage of events and people in your community; promotion of the academic and athletic endeavors of your children; attendance at common council and school board meetings and public hearings that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to fit into your schedule; and populkar updates like police reports and obituaries.

In the absence of a newspaper in your town, who has the time or ability to fill that void? The answer is simple: no one.

Don’t think that what is happening to the Buffalo News and other major metropolitan newspapers isn’t and can’t happen to those smaller papers. It’s like a plague that has taken over the country.

Case in point, the Lockport Union Sun and Journal and Niagara Gazette don’t print one day out of every week and just a few years ago their sister papers – the Tonawanda News and Medina Journal-Register – had to close due to the economics of the industry. People genuinely miss those newspapers – I hear from local residents all of the time. They feel like they are totally out of the loop without them.  

Or, how about my beloved Wellsville Daily Reporter? It was announced 2 weeks ago that the Reporter, the history of which dates back to 1880, was merging with Hornell’s Evening Tribune. That’s an absolute necessity in a changing news marketplace and a depressed Southern Tier economy.

To keep the news alive, publishers have to be creative and, unfortunately, they have to break from tradition and/or write pink slips. Smaller papers, consolidations, and not-so-daily newspapers are becoming standard practice.

The fight for the press shouldn’t begin and end in their offices. We all have a say in it.

Businesses need to buy advertisements.

Consumers need to purchase print or electronic subscriptions.

And, above all, we need to stop cheering the decline in newspapers’ sizes, profitability, and employment rolls.

It’s ignorant to do that, and an ignorant people we all will become without the press behind and before us.

No news is bad news.

From the 28 May 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Stop overscheduling your kids

Talk to many of today’s parents and they’ll seem pretty harried by adulthood. They’re at their wits end and they say they don’t have the time to cook dinner, volunteer or even have time for themselves.

How can that be? It’s not as if the workweek has grown this generation; as a matter of fact, it’s decreased. In 1995, the average American worked 39.2 hours. Today, it’s 34.4 hours.

This perceived loss of time is because they overscheduled themselves by overscheduling their children.

That plight was highlighted in an op-ed that ran in metropolitan newspapers across the country on Mother’s Day. The authors, two folks from George Mason’s Technology Policy Program, said the average parent spends more than 5 hours a week driving children to and from activities and more than 1 in 10 spend more than 10 hours a week on the road with them. Their report did not touch on the many more hours that parents sit in the stands or in the back of a classroom watching practice, a sporting event, or a performance.

Those writers used that data to segue into a discussion about what they viewed as the perfect Mother’s Day gift: Autonomous cars. In their view, driverless vehicles will allow mom and child more time together as passengers.

I have an even better invention than a driverless car to address these woes. It’s called an autonomous family – one that isn’t driven by schedule.

Parents need to stop signing-up their kids for every event, sport and club imaginable and live. Sitting in a car is not quality family time. Neither is sitting in the stands killing time all year long. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for your kids. You need time to do things together and on your own, free of burden. Life is too short; we need to let our kids live their childhoods free of full calendars and adults need time to enjoy parenting, adulthood, and the companionship of their mate.

I’ve been volunteering for youth causes for years. For a quarter century now I’ve been leading Boy Scouts in some capacity. I’ve run career shadowing programs. I’ve helped out at local schools. So, I’ve seen how kids and their parents are impacted by the drive to busy. As a youth leader -- and as a parent -- I offer these thoughts on how to make your family time less stressful and more enjoyable:   

Stick to one sport, one season. Too many moms and dads think they are doing well by their kids signing them up for a sport for every season or jumping into a more developed version of their favorite that might see year-round skills development. Please, stop. It becomes work. Just ask your kid. Too many practices, too many games can cause sports to lose their luster to your child (and you). Get them to pick a sport and tackle it in its primary season. Think about that – for three-quarters of the year you will have your evenings and weekends back with your kids!    

Join a more versatile organization. Sports isn’t for every kid but some still want to do things, have a sense of belonging, and feed their insatiable sense of wonder. You don’t want to saddle them with a handful of clubs to figure out which one tickles their fancy. Instead, pick one that covers a whole gamut of activities from leadership to arts to the outdoors to sports to technology. You get that from the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as 4-H and FFA. That’s one meeting a week, maybe one event a month with considerable payoff – they become Renaissance Men and Women.   

Develop free-range children. You’ve likely heard horror stories of Child Protective Services busting parents for (gasp!) unsupervised kids at playgrounds. But, that’s the way we all grew up. We played pick-up sports with our pals. We made things. We went fishing. We hung with our friends. All without parents in tow. Giving children freedom allows them to find the things they like, develop a little independence, and inspire creativity via free play. Let kids be kids. They’ll keep themselves busy. It’s easy. And, they’ll love it.   

Encourage traditions. Children and pre-teens dig tradition. There’s comfort and excitement to be had in regularly revisiting destinations and restaurants they really like. If you find that they enjoy the local park, a campground, or diner, and you can see the joy on their faces and you feel the warmth within you, take advantage of that. That’s how memories are made. That’s how family bonds are made. Once-in-a-while activities carry more meaning than relentless ones.    

Get outdoors. The great outdoors is the great equalizer. Parents and their children are there, together, in a timeless place where we are all one with nature. There’s no office politics, no schoolroom pressure, no computers, and no schedule. There’s no better time spent wading in a stream with a little one, kayaking a river with a teen, or camping with them in the forest at any age. Being away from the hustle and bustle and enjoying each other’s company when no one else is around.

So, I encourage moms and dads to take a step back and look at your calendars. Is all that chaos worth it? Clean off that calendar and simplify your life. Make time….family time.

From the 21 May 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News