Transforming Erie into a Retirement and Tourism Hub: A Look at Cruise Ships, Caviar and Living Costs

This is the fourth in a series of columns by retired Erie engineer, William R. Miller, discussing potential opportunities for economic growth in the region.

It seems logical to develop a comprehensive plan for tourism and retirement living for Erie and the interconnected “Upper Allegheny” region. Is it possible for the Upper Allegheny to become the “most senior-friendly region in the northern U.S.”? Could Erie earn the nickname “Camelot on the Lake”?

According to several studies, our region performs significantly better than the national average of other metropolitan areas in five crucial areas: low cost of living; quality health care access; low crime rates; good transportation (with the exception of current air services); and recreational and higher education opportunities. These key areas, which are of particular importance to retirees, are also a substantial part of the Erie economy, which heavily relies on tourism and retirees. The essential elements of low crime, good transportation, and recreation, paired with a pleasant atmosphere, are crucial to supporting the tourism sector of the economy.

I have combined these two plans because the region’s poor climate rating is a negative factor in both cases. Efforts must be made to mitigate the effects of the climate as much as possible. A part-time regional coordinator could effectively manage these plans.

One practical approach to negate the impact of Erie’s weather on visitors and retirees is to significantly enhance the prevalence of sheltered walkways or “porte cochere” across the area. This would allow individuals to embark and disembark from cars, buses, and other modes of transport without exposure to the elements. For example, in Erie, East 8th Street from State to French could be roofed and designated as an on-demand “No Parking” street during events. Patrons of Warner Theatre could be collected or dropped off, or navigate to the parking lot without getting wet. Similarly, a roof could cover East 8th Street between the Erie Insurance Arena and the car park.

Modifications to zoning might necessitate that nursing homes, hospitals, airports, stadiums, entertainment venues, and hotels incorporate covered entrances that are accessible to cars and buses. Property tax incentives could be leveraged to stimulate the construction of nursing homes with direct, sheltered walkways to indoor malls or shopping centers. Malls and shopping complexes that do not provide protection from the weather for customers moving from one shop to another should face penalties via zoning constraints or additional property tax charges.

To accommodate older adults, every effort must be undertaken to diminish their need to go outside in harsh weather. Efforts should be made to motivate and reward services such as Meals on Wheels, Visiting Nurses, and similar organizations to tackle weather-related issues faced by older adults in the region. As highlighted in a previous article in this series, the establishment of a central transport hub, anchored on the airport would simplify travel. The strategy for snow clearance should prioritize the routes most used by older people.

Increased event organization during the fall, winter, and spring would boost tourism. The ice accumulation in Presque Isle Bay isn’t consistent enough, owing to current climate variations, to plan an event around it. However, outdoor skating rinks could be established in parks during winter for sports, exhibitions, and recreational skating. Consider these as miniature versions of Rockefeller Centers in small towns.

There are a plethora of unique “non-summer” attractions that we can ponder upon. A promising method could be searching for historical events that can be commemorated. In 2024, there are significant anniversaries such as 180 years since the completion of the Erie Extension Canal, 165 years since Drake Well was established, and the 150th Anniversary of Chautauqua. Notably, Erie will be experiencing a total solar eclipse on April 8, and a D-Day reenactment will take place in Conneaut, Ohio between August 15-17.

Potential milestone commemorations could encompass the 1813Battle of Lake Erie; The discovery of bog iron at Presque Isle in 1832; the 1843launch of USS Michigan, which was the U.S. Navy’s first iron warship; the 1844 arrival ofthe first boat on the Erie Extension Canal; the founding of Griswold Manufacturing Company in 1865; and the unveiling of theZippo lighters that were used by the U.S. military in WWII.

In 2024, at least four cruise ship companies are expected to operate on the Great Lakes, primarily shuttling between Toronto and Milwaukee or Chicago. They offer cruises that last between eight and 16 days. From late spring to early fall, one or two of these ships often sail past Erie every week, without any stops.Pearl Seas CruisesandViking Cruiseshave itineraries that include a stopover in Cleveland, whilst Viking also stops at Pelee Island. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Ponant Cruises do not make stops in Lake Erie and sail directly between Detroit and Toronto.

It could be challenging to encourage these lines to make changes to their sailings immediately. Our initial focus should be to entice them to stop in Erie when their itinerary aligns with a local event. For instance, several cruise ships are expected to sail near Erie during August and September this year, which coincides with the Battle of Lake Erie and Drake Well festivities.

Encouraging cruise ships to make frequent stops in Erie will require us to offer optional trips to local attractions, if space permits, these may also be extended to non-passengers.

Potential Erie attractions for visitors could include the Erie Maritime Museum, a potential aquarium, a yet to be confirmed caviar hatchery and even a brief sail on the Niagara. Additionally, we might be able to arrange for another tall ship to dock in Erie during the Sept. 10th Battle of Lake Erie anniversary to present a reenactment. If the timing aligns, a performance from the Erie Philharmonic could also be a part of the itinerary.

Existing winery tours could be integrated in a way that suits the arrival and departure times of the cruise ships. Similarly, brewery tours could also be a fun excursion for tourists. Excursions to the Chautauqua and possibly Lily Dale could be organized, potentially synchronizing with the Chautauqua Anniversary Celebration in 2024. Needless to say, these will require careful coordination with the cruise ship schedules.

There could be other possible regional trips as well:

Fall foliage rail trip to Drake Well, with passengers boarding the train car on the siding across the Bayfront Parkway from the Erie Cruise Terminal. This could tie into the Drake Well anniversary celebration in 2024. At least three companies — Cuyahoga Valley Scenic RR, Ozark Mountain Railcar and Railexco— lease out private passenger cars (some with catering facilities). Cuyahoga even has a self-propelled passenger car that doesn’t require a locomotive.

There are also some Upper Allegheny festivals that might interest cruise passengers: Clymer, N.Y.’s Tulip Festival; Troika Russian Festival in Erie; the Punxsutawney Groundhog Festival; Pennsylvania Firefly Festival in Tionesta; North East Firemen’s Cherry Festival; oil heritage festivals in Oil City and Titusville, and the Rock in River Festival and stone-skipping championship in Franklin; and PennWest Edinboro Highland Games and Scottish Festival.

In my view — with the possible exception of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — Erie and the region have more current and potential, higher quality shore excursions to offer than Cleveland. The “competition” offers excursions, for example, to Ohio Amish country, Cleveland’s West Side market, Little Italy neighborhood and Cultural Gardens and the Museum of Art, as well as opportunities for birding, kayaking and hiking.

Erie has several major sports teams which both encourage tourism and are a source of civic pride. Unfortunately, such teams are at the mercy of owners and leagues who might move the team out at any time. It is proposed that the region secure these resources by following Green Bay’s lead and have the public and/or the local governments buy a controlling interest in the teams.

The most noticeable probability would be a freshwater aquarium centered on fish species from lakes and streams. A location on the bayfront is perfect for an aquarium due to the proximity of a waterworks plant to the west and a wastewater treatment plant a few blocks eastward. The Erie Maritime Museum might be incorporated to support aquarium guests while reducing administrative expenses.

Consider creating a visitor-friendly caviar hatchery within the aquarium. Advancements in technology now permit extracting eggs from the sturgeon without killing them, unlike the former methods. Not only would this attract numerous visitors, it might even allow us to establish our own brand of caviar.

During the initial period of the oil boom in Oil City and Titusville, transport routes were limited and Oil Creek was not deep enough for large barge traffic. The solution involved damming Oil Creek to form a lake, gather a flotilla of barrel-laden boats, steered by boatmen. Once all the boats were loaded, the dam would be broken, allowing them to launch and ride the flood downstream to the navigable Allegheny River. From there, they could float to Pittsburgh. This scenario has echoes of an amusement park ride, for example those at Universal Studio Park, simulating the exciting and unpredictable journey of the flood as it speeds through the creek bed. Ideally, such a ride could be located within Drake Well State Park.

To honor the legacy of the Erie Extension Canal, I propose the construction of a replica passenger packet boat at either the Maritime Museum or the Hagen Historical Museum. This would allow visitors to dine onboard “canal boat style”, perhaps whilst enjoying a lecture on the canal’s history.

The Erie Extension Canal’s tow path was one of the major routes used by enslaved people escaping to freedom. There are a few houses left along the old canal route in this area that were once on the Underground Railroad. Tours of these homes could possibly be arranged.

A recent article by Darrell Owens highlighted the attempts to bring a retired Oliver Perry-class Guided Missile Frigate to Erie. If we were successful, and we also added the USS Wolverine, or a partial replica of the facade, Erie would be the only U.S. port showcasing the entire history of naval ship construction.

Additionally, having good air service is pivotal to the success of both tourism and retirement living plans. That’s why I want to make a deeper dive into the topic which I had started discussing in a previous article.

I strongly feel that U.S. Congressman Mike Kelly, who represents Erie, should collaborate with U.S. Reps. Dave Joyce (Ashtabula County, Ohio), and Nick Langworthy (Chautauqua County, N.Y.) to advocate for an Essential Air Service designation for the Erie International Airport.

The EAS program was established to ensure that minor communities that were catered to by certified air carriers before the deregulation of airlines continue to receive a minimal level of scheduled air service. It is the mandate of the United States Department of Transportation to provide eligible EAS communities with access to the National Air Transportation System. Typically, this is done by subsidizing two round trips daily with 30-to-50-seat aircraft, or additional frequencies with aircraft having nine or fewer seats, generally to a large- or medium-sized airport. The department presently subsidizes commuter and certified air carriers to provide service to roughly115 communities in the lower 48 contiguous states which otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

In my opinion, we should let go of the major airlines which are downsizing and focus on the growing, non-captive regional airlines such as SkyWest, Republic, Mesa, Compass & GoJet, which have ridership in the millions. Frontier Airlines is aggressively expanding in our region. They have already announced new routes in the coming two years to establish service from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh, and Jamaica and from Cleveland to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, and Jamaica. It appears to me that these are the airlines we ought to be targeting, making use of EAS subsidies and other financial incentives.

William Miller: Why don’t we restore commercial fishing in Erie?

Although it might be a long shot, we could consider partnering with the FedEx cargo plane that travels between Erie and Cleveland every day. “Combi” aircraft have been and are in use. These planes have a passenger compartment (generally at the front of the plane) and a cargo compartment at the back. If an agreement could be reached, it could provide us with a once daily round trip flight to Cleveland. If the schedule was adjusted, it could allow passengers from Chicago to reach Cleveland in time to board the plane to Erie.

William R. Miller is the former vice president of research and development at AMSCO. He formerly co-chaired the Erie 2000 study for the Erie Conference in 1984 and has been updating and expanding that study in recent years. He has also served as a volunteer docent at the Erie Maritime Museum, published a book on the Battle of Lake Erie and written a pamphlet for the museum on the Erie Extension Canal.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: How to maximize Erie PA, Upper Allegheny assets for tourists, retirees

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