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 shores 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 a glittering casino that are still 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 local stores.
His dreams are shared by Erie's mayor, a new tourism bureau, hotel owners and investors, all of whom are determined to turn this once prosperous industrial northwestern Pennsylvania city into a tourist destination that will rival 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-ching 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 in the wake of heavy industry's collapse.
Many are building convention centers and casinos, cleaning up polluted waterfronts and using low-interest loans and state grants to lure entrepreneurs to open restaurants and quaint shops.
Some, like Johnstown, Pa., 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 antique buffs.
Crooked Road gets a boost
In the coal mining Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia, the state connected 250 miles of mountain passes through 28 communities to create the Crooked Road, a foray through the region's bluegrass music culture.
Tourism on the Crooked Road has been a huge boost to an economy plagued for decades by double-digit unemployment, local and state officials say.
The more than 10 percent increase in tourism since the road opened in 2004 has sparked locals to open restaurants, hotels, shops and even brought a long-courted McDonald's to Clintwood, a town of barely 1,500 people, Mayor Donald Baker said. Unemployment is down to about 5 percent now, he said.
"While it's not providing the jobs en masse like a factory would, they are jobs that won't be eliminated," said Tamra Talmadge-Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Tourism Corp.
"These tourism jobs cannot be ... moved to India," she added, a reference to online travel agency Travelocity's decision about five years ago to move 250 local call-center jobs there.
Like other former industrial communities in the East Coast and Midwest, Erie has spent the last 25 years battling unemployment — in March 2008 it was at 6 percent — and poverty rates more than double the national level.
But tourism is largely a low-wage industry highly sensitive to economic turns. Big investments, like Autoworld, the multimillion-dollar indoor amusement park in Flint, Mich., that went bankrupt months after opening, are susceptible to failure.
Experts also say it takes years for a place to reinvent itself and conjure up images of a pastoral vacation spot rather than a smoke-filled industrial town.
"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 at Greensboro.
Former industrial cities also want to boost tourism. In Detroit, $2 billion of construction along the waterfront has brought 60 new restaurants downtown, creating service sector and "new economy" jobs, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said.
"There are a lot of things that we're doing now in Detroit and I think we're going to be a model for the nation because of what we've experienced," he said, referring to the city's massive loss of auto industry jobs.
Big cities, however, have easier access to financial and other resources, experts say. For small towns, large sums of federal, state and private dollars are often out of reach.
So Erie planners want to offer visitors a diverse experience that will encourage 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 4 million annual visitors an overview of the reserve's features and a venue for educational programming.
Nearby are the new marinas, lakefront highway, walkways, the convention center and the mayor's still unrealized plans of buying up vacant waterfront properties to make way for tourist-friendly businesses.
With the recent 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 of VisitErie, a for-profit group that broke off from the city's Chamber of Commerce in 2001 to focus exclusively on tourism.
There are no limits, he says, 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 to the Pennsylvania city.
Tourism a ‘very strong leg’
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 in Philadelphia, warns that the low-paying jobs tourism creates cannot revive Rust Belt communities.
To prop up their shrinking tax bases, Rust Belt towns must attract companies that hire educated workers, Stull said. Tourism could, however, force them to clean up and attract higher-end companies, he said.
"There's no way that this (tourism) could possibly replace the jobs and the economic base in these areas," Stull said. "It's impossible."
Oliver and Mayor Sinnott point to small successes: Hotel occupancy rates have been rising in the past decade, and investors plan to build an additional 800 rooms in the next two to three years.
State figures from 2004 showed visitors (not including international tourists, among them Canadians) spent $700 million in Erie County, Oliver said. In the past 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 has doubled in six years to about 70 percent, especially high for a small establishment.
The Victorian-era inn traditionally attracts business travelers but recently has seen more people coming to soak up the sites and the beaches, she said.
"People don't just drive through Erie on their way to something else," Knox said, listing the city's attractions, including sunsets over the lake.
"There's lots of real plusses. I think the only hard part is getting this to happen tomorrow."