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Eddie Friel, One of the Great Experts in Destination Marketing,
Gives Buffalo, NY Ideas to Reinvent Itself

By Bill Michelmore, The Buffalo News, N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 14, 2007 - --Buffalo is beautiful. Just ask Eddie Friel, a tourism guru who has traveled the world.

"The architecture is stunning," he said. "The cityscape is wonderful."

But Buffalo, a city tarnished by the Rust Belt exodus in the 1960s, is at a crucial crossroads, Friel said. "When the industrial base collapses, you're challenged to reinvent yourself."

Buffalo today is where Glasgow, Scotland, was in 1983, Friel said.

He helped turn that dying industrial city -- once a world shipbuilding capital -- into an arts and cultural center that now employs twice as many people in the tourism industry as it did in shipbuilding.

Now he's here, to help the Buffalo Niagara region. Friel joined the faculty of Niagara University in January as an "expert in residence" in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management. His three-year stay is part of a $600,000 grant to Niagara from the John R. Oishei Foundation.

Buffalo Niagara needs to reshape its image, Friel said, and slash the number of local governments and economic development agencies.

Gary Praetzel, dean of Niagara's tourism management college, said he brought Friel here because of the parallel between Glasgow and Buffalo. "Friel offers us a road map to economic growth through tourism," Praetzel said. "What was done in Glasgow is the perfect strategy to follow here."

Friel, a native of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, has more than 35 years experience in the tourism industry. He has a string of degrees and honors, including Officer of the Order of the British Empire, bestowed upon him in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II for services to tourism in Scotland.

"On the world stage, he's one of the great experts in destination marketing," Praetzel said. "It's like bringing to campus a Nobel Prize winner."

As the first chief executive of the Greater Glasgow Tourist Board, Friel is credited with helping to transform down- town Glasgow into an attractive place to live by converting Victorian buildings into apartment houses and turning several streets into pedestrian malls.

Buffalo's architecture alone, he said, is a reason to be proud of the city.

Friel's parting gift to the city of Glasgow was a new brand: "Glasgow: Scotland with Style."

That's what Buffalo needs, Friel said, a brand -- something that speaks to how a community perceives itself.

"Cities now find themselves competing as places to live, work, visit and invest in," he said. "They have to be able to describe what is unique and different about their city over anywhere else."

The brand Friel left Glasgow with harks back to the phrase, "The Glasgow Style," coined at the turn of the 20th century to describe the architecture of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Glasgow resident who designed and built the Glasgow School of Art and whose work had a global influence on the Art Nouveau movement.

That influence can be seen in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, a contemporary who designed, among many other famous structures, the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo.

By focusing on architecture, the arts and tourism marketing, Glasgow remade itself. In 1990, the European Union designated the city the "Cultural Capital of Europe."

"We had two choices. We could live, or we could die," Friel said. "That's where Buffalo is right now."

Friel wants Buffalo and Niagara Falls not to "wallow in their post-industrial decline." The difficulty, he acknowledged, is creating jobs for people who have been disconnected from their manufacturing past.

The answer, he said, is tourism. "Tourism can provide jobs from the point of entry to executive positions," he said, everything from airport baggage handlers to heads of four-star hotels. Friel noted what assets the Buffalo Niagara region has: Niagara Falls, professional sports teams, live theater, world class art museums, great architecture and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

And an airport -- that other airport. "The Niagara Falls airport is the biggest single opportunity Western New York has to become a major tourism hub," he maintained.

Friel compared the potential of the Niagara Falls International Airport to the phenomenal growth at Prestwick Airport, 25 miles from Glasgow.

"Five years ago, nobody flew into Prestwick," he said. "Last year, it had more than 2.5 million passengers."

Friel mentioned the new A380 aircraft that can carry 500 passengers. The Buffalo airport couldn't handle such a huge plane. The Niagara Falls airport can. "If you drop off 500 tourists at a time in Niagara Falls, they're going to spread throughout the region," he predicted.

It's also clear to Friel that the biggest impediment to regional growth is what he calls a "vacuum of leadership."

"What agency has the total responsibility, authority and accountability for the economic development of Western New York? If more than one person is responsible, nobody is accountable," he said, "and if nobody is accountable, nothing gets done."

Friel put it this way: "Everybody needs to sing off the same hymn sheet, but at the moment they haven't got the music and the choir's out of tune."

One place to start, Friel suggested, is to reinvigorate the blighted downtowns of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. "You have to make the downtown areas attractive and vibrant places to live," he said.

He questioned the wisdom of putting a Bass Pro Shops store in Buffalo's planned historic waterfront district. "You build visual icons that make statements about your city, and building a shed on the waterfront doesn't do it."

A first step for Buffalo is to get rid of its inferiority complex.

"People who talk of Buffalo in negative terms just have to look at Glasgow," he said. "Images and perceptions can be changed."

bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

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