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"Not a rest stop": WNY Welcome Center formally opens in Grand Island

A new $20 million facility that offers interactive information on a widespread variety of regional tourist destinations, as well as a market offering locally-produced foods and beverages, has opened in Grand Island. Numerous elected officials and residents gathered for the grand opening of the Western New York Welcome Center.

It is one of 11 welcome centers built throughout New York State. The Western New York Welcome Center building is inspired by the designs of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose local works include the Darwin Martin House and Graycliff Estate. Those are just two of numerous locations spotlighted in video monitors and interactive boards located within the facility. 

Also featured are many locations from Niagara Falls and Lockport to the Southern Tier that even some in attendance admitted they had no familiarity.

"I'm looking at the screens and I'm seeing things that I didn't realize we had with a drive," said State Assemblyman Morinello of Niagara Falls. "One tank of gas. Think about that. A day trip. You come in here and you see this shall also serve as a catalyst for visitors to spend extra time in Western New York."

Introducing the "other things to do" was heavily emphasized in remarks by numerous speakers, beginning with Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray, who opened the ceremony. He spoke of his own travels around the world and meeting people who had photos in their homes of loved ones standing at Niagara Falls. 

"This is a special place. But people come, they take a picture and they leave," he said. "Now, they might stay here, they might look and say, 'Hey, what's the Roycroft? What's happening at Canalside?' This will be a link between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, encouraging people to come and celebrate this region with us."

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul toured the facility before the ceremony began. She featured in her remarks the in-house market Taste NY, which serves breakfast and lunch items while also selling various food products and beverages made in Western New York. 

"We're also helping farmers with this Taste NY facility," she said. "Showcasing foods and goods and jams and even alcohol from all over the State of New York. It's a focus, a special focus, on our people here in this community. We're putting the spotlight on our small businesses and our farmers and that is long overdue."

Grand Island's equidistant promixity from Buffalo and Niagara Falls is why the Welcome Center is located there,  explained Empire State Development president and chief executive officer Howard Zemsky. He told the audience the Cuomo Administration, as far back as 2011, was looking to connect the outdoor-minded attractions in Niagara Falls to the architectural, historic and cultural assets in Buffalo.

And, Zemsky declared, it's working.

"Tourism in this region is up over 15 percent in those years," he said. "Over 60,000 people now are employed in the tourism sector in this region, up well over 5,000 people. Spending is up well over 15 percent. Wages for people working in the hospitality business is up almost 20 percent. This is a remarkably robust tourist economy and region."

Morinello noted that there are also meeting rooms built within the facility, giving local residents the opportunity to host community meetings or events in this same facility.

'It will facilitate the residents of Grand Island, Niagara Falls and Western New York to have a meeting spot. They have prepared that," he said. "This is not a rest stop. This is a visitors' center and a community center."

Amenities offered on site also include a pet comfort area, a playground featuring a "Great Lakes shipwreck" theme, electric vehicle charging stations and motorcycle shelter. Parking spaces are available not only for autos but also buses, RVs and trucks. 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.