A New Stadium and a New Museum Can Co-Anchor the Toronto-Buffalo-Rochester Mega-Region

For almost a quarter century, I’ve divided my time between Rochester and Buffalo. This gave me the opportunity to observe the contrasts of two cities so close together yet so different culturally. If Rochester is the East Coast of the Midwest as some have joked, then Buffalo surely must be the West Coast of the East. Rochester could be transported to Rochester Minnesota and feel at home. Buffalo could move closer to New York and still feel comfortable. Rochester’s history is artisanal and middle class—the small factories that took advantage of water power in the 19th century blossomed into tech in the 20th. Buffalo is industrial and more working class, even now. Rochester is mostly Protestant, Buffalo more Catholic and ethnic. If Rochester is white wine at the Junior League, Buffalo is beer and wings at the Irish Center. Soccer, a graceful and fluid game, the wave of the shiny high tech future, thrives in Rochester.  In gritty Buffalo fans like their football straight ahead and rough and tumble. Ca-rrunnchhh. Culture and sport, you can’t pull them apart.

Ralph Wilson Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bills (loved by Buffaloians and Rochesterians alike) and a fixture of the built landscape, opened in 1973, two years before Chevrolet sold its first Vega. It’s a symbol of tenacity and stubbornness in the face of change. But even stoic Buffalo fans now notice how the freeze-thaw cycles of Western New York winters haven’t treated 40-year-old concrete kindly. Necessity is forcing planners to think anew. The League exerts pressure to modernize and upgrade. Football stadiums elsewhere strive for greater comfort and better technology. And in some places, stadiums occupy most scenic spots that enhance civic cultural assets.  Not so far away in Cleveland, for example, the handsome new Browns Stadium nestles alongside the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fans and museum-goers reach the game and the galleries by light rail.

This year a Buffalo group that is planning a vast lakeside sports-entertainment complex looked 70 miles to their East and invited The Strong here in Rochester to imagine a museum to co-anchor the space that will transform disused and abandoned post-industrial land on Buffalo’s waterfront on the city’s outer harbor, just southwest of the Peace Bridge. The land lies at the strategic center of the Toronto-Buffalo-Rochester corridor, the fifth largest “mega-region” in North America. Though two Great Lakes take big bites out of this territory, its economic might still surpasses all of Australia. Twenty-two million people call the region home.

Football attracts big crowds on seven Sunday afternoons each Fall. The Strong’s National Museum of Play in Rochester currently attracts 600,000 visitors year round—more than a third from outside Greater Rochester. Would it surprise you to know that this figure is comparable to the Buffalo Bills annual attendance? We expect that a sports museum—we’d call it the North American Museum of Sports and Culture—located at this strategic point in Buffalo, would draw in a similar way. Build it there and they will come.

It’s an important prospect this North American Museum of Sports and Culture; it’s a logical extension of our mission here at The Strong. Sports, a subset of play, show us how we celebrate physical and mental achievement. Explaining the rules we play by shows us how we regulate competition so that we can better enjoy it. To appreciate how sports evolved is to understand how we amused ourselves and how we congregated. Understanding how our celebrations and competitions have changed over time tells us about the people we were and the people we’ve become. Explaining why a hockey stick is curved or why curlers need broom-sweepers is a painless way to learn physics. Sports fiction and films show us how we created heroes. And controversies in sport, over questions of race, gender, or class show us how we’ve strived for fairness over time. The tools of sports themselves tell us important stories of technological change and how these changes make games safer or more exciting. Some of these objects, the tools of play that great sports men and women held or wore, seem to glow with a holy aura.

The most interesting prospect of all, the experience most pleasing for guests, and the most mouth-watering and challenging expectation for exhibit developers like me (with one foot in Rochester and the other in Buffalo) and my colleagues at The Strong is that explaining sports’ skills cries out for hands-on explanation. To balance, to aim at and hit a moving target, to coordinate hand and eye, to understand a game’s strategy, all these are best explained, simulated, and experienced interactively. You can read a rule book, watch a game video, or listen to a description of play on the radio. But in this North American Museum of Sports and Culture, a state of the art experience, you will play to learn.