The Presque Isle Model

 

(This 1248th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 22, 2015.)

 

Presque Isle State Park is a five square mile sand spit that extends out into Lake Erie from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania. It serves as that city's waterfront park and its role is analogous to what the Buffalo Outer Harbor could play for the city of Buffalo.

 

The Presque Isle park attracts over four million visitors each year. I'm one of them. With friends I usually drive the hundred miles at least once each spring and fall to observe migrating birds in the park. Like the Buffalo Outer Harbor, it serves as a gathering place during those migration seasons. But Presque Isle has enhanced its value as a migrant trap and too little has been done to enhance our Outer Harbor for its comparable role.

 

Because I consider our Outer Harbor and the Presque Isle Park so similar, I contacted Harry Z. Leslie, the park operations manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, to see if he had any comparable information about the value of the park to the local region.
 
I lucked out. 
 
In response to my request, Leslie sent me what he described as "the most recent visitor information study that we have done on Presque Isle, which I think will be very beneficial to finding the information you are looking for. This study is current: survey work done all year during 2012 and the final report just released in 2013. Plus, this is the first of its kind for Pennsylvania State parks, where a visitor survey/study was conducted for 365 days, instead of just the main recreational season for a park. We wanted to understand the dynamics of the park now since we added the Tom Ridge Environmental Center facility in 2006, and what role that has had on year round visitation to our region."
 
I must admit that in the past I considered the time spent to gather information for documents like the "20122013 Presque Isle State Park Visitor Survey: Final Report" he sent me a use of time and effort that could be better applied to other management tasks. In this case, however, I have to bite my tongue. The 57 page report is worth examining in detail as I can only summarize a few of its features here. It is easily accessed by title from the web.
 
The study was a serious undertaking extending over a period of 300 days. Data was gathered through 15-minute face-to-face interviews of over 2500 park visitors at times nearly equally divided among the four seasons. The results should be of interest not only to proponents of establishing the Buffalo Outer Harbor as parklands but also to the Western New York tourism industry. Here are some of them:
 

While about half of the visitors earned at least $75,000 per year, 28% earned less than $50,000 each year. Thus the visitors represented quite reasonably the income distribution of our society today.

 

Visitors traveled an average of 90 miles from their home to the park. Over one out of four visitors at Presque Isle State Park traveled from outofstate.

 

One out of 5 visitors reported that their trip to Presque Isle State Park was part of an overnight stay in the region. Among those who indicated that their visit was part of an overnight trip to the region, 43% said they were staying at a hotel or motel and 16% said they were staying at a private campground.

 

Many adult visitors brought children. Among them they were about equally divided among those who brought one, two or three children with them.

 

Hiking or walking was one of the more popular activities at the park with over a third reporting this activity.

 

Of course as it is today, the Buffalo Outer Harbor differs strikingly from the Presque Isle parklands. Presque Isle has a monument to Oliver Hazard Perry, swimming beaches and its attractive recent addition, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center. Today our Outer Harbor fields lie fallow and mostly treeless, waiting for developers to build town houses and shopping centers there. But it too has famous features, among them its two lighthouses, its common tern colony and the Times Beach enclave. Enhanced by an environmental center like that of Presque Isle it could do as much for Buffalo as Presque Isle does for Erie.-- Gerry Rising