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

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