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Once-industrial Erie turns toward tourism

Officials envision new life for the Rust Belt city through visitors to a state park and more.

ERIE - When Kevin Molloy gazes out the windows of the $110 million glass-encased Erie convention center, he doesn't see the vacant, decaying buildings along the lake's shore and downtown.

Instead, the center's general manager envisions business travelers dressed down and crowding the city's seven miles of pristine beaches, sailboat-packed marinas, and glittering casino, all usually patronized by a more local set. He imagines those businessmen and women returning with their families, bringing their children to frolic in an indoor water park and to shop at stores.

His dreams are shared by Erie's mayor, a new tourism bureau, hotel owners, and investors, all determined to turn this once-prosperous industrial city into a tourist destination rivaling Niagara Falls, just two hours away.

"Because we're a Rust Belt city, with a lot of the heavier industry that's gone other places, we now have a void that we're hoping the tourism industry will help to fill," Mayor Joseph Sinnott said.

Fifty years ago, lake and river communities heard the cha-chinging of industrial dollars when they looked at their waterfronts. Now they see places where tourists will spend free time and money, helping to revive economies shattered by the joblessness and poverty left by heavy industry's collapse.

Many are building convention centers and casinos, cleaning up polluted waterfronts, and using low-interest loans and state grants to encourage entrepreneurs to open restaurants and quaint shops.

Some, like Johnstown, hope to use their steel history to attract visitors interested in the industries that fueled the country's economy for more than a century. Others, like Selma, N.C., have become a destination for antiques buffs.

But experts say it takes years for a place to reinvent itself and conjure up images of a vacation spot.

"Tourism can be a great secondary industry. It can also be a great primary industry, but there's got to be something else in that community. It can't stand alone," said Erick Byrd, an assistant professor of travel and tourism at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

Erie planners want to offer visitors a diverse experience that encourages them to stay several days. They tout Presque Isle State Park, a beach-filled preserve used in summer for swimming, boating, kayaking and bird-watching and in winter for fly-fishing and cross-country skiing. A $31 million environmental center open since 2006 provides the park's four million annual visitors an overview of the reserve's features and a venue for educational programming.

Nearby are the new marinas, lakefront highway, walkways and convention center and the mayor's still-unrealized plans of buying up vacant waterfront properties to make way for tourist-friendly businesses.

With the opening of a slots parlor and the indoor water park, Splash Lagoon, Erie planners believe they can even offer visitors activities in winter, when the city is best-known for its brutal lake-effect storms.

"What we're looking ... to do is make those potential visitors in Ohio, up into Buffalo, western New York and even southern Ontario ... aware of what we have here in Erie," said John Oliver, president and chief executive officer of VisitErie, a for-profit group that broke off from the city's Chamber of Commerce in 2001 to focus on tourism.

There are no limits, he said, to what the group will do to bring people into the community. For example, the city's port authority is looking into the viability of setting up a high-speed ferry service that would bring travelers from Canada's Lake Erie shore.

If it appeared profitable to work with Pittsburgh or Philadelphia to bring international visitors to Erie on their way to Niagara Falls, VisitErie would hop aboard, Oliver said.

"Tourism is now being recognized not as the sole economic source for this community, but as a very strong leg," he said.

But William Stull, a professor of economics at Temple University, warned that low-paying tourism jobs could not revive Rust Belt communities. To prop up shrinking tax bases, such towns must attract companies that hire educated workers, he said.

Tourism could, however, force them to clean up and attract higher-end companies, Stull said.

"There's no way that this [tourism] could possibly replace the jobs and the economic base in these areas," he said. "It's impossible."

Oliver and Sinnott point to small successes: Hotel occupancy rates have risen in the last decade, and investors plan to add 800 rooms in the next two or three years.

State figures from 2004 showed that visitors (not including international tourists, among them Canadians) spent $700 million in Erie County, Oliver said. In the last year, 1,000 tourism-related jobs have been added, bringing the total to about 13,000 countywide.

Gloria Knox, owner and manager of the Boothby Inn, an upscale bed-and-breakfast, said her occupancy rate had doubled in six years to about 70 percent, especially high for a small establishment.

The Victorian-era inn traditionally attracts business travelers but has seen more people coming to see the sights and the beaches, she said.

"People don't just drive through Erie on their way to something else," Knox said, listing sunsets over the lake among the attractions.

"There's lots of real plusses. I think the only hard part is getting this to happen tomorrow."