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Off Main Street / The offbeat side of the news

Keeping it up

Hate to deflate you Christmas party planners, but be prepared: a worldwide helium shortage may bust your balloon.

That's right, the gas that keeps balloons floating is in short supply, and it's more expensive than it's ever been.

While the majority of the helium sold in the world is used in welding and to cool MRIs, a little less than 10 percent goes to inflate balloons.

But one local helium user, Chris Potts at Balloon Masters, said the shortage has been a blessing for his customers and his business.

Potts said he's been able to persuade many of his customers to fill the balloons with air, then shape the balloons around frames, or use air-filled columns or arches instead.

"Last year, they spent $500 on helium balloons," he said. "This year, I tell them to duplicate that, it's going to be $600, but for $450, we can do an air-filled arrangement and you'll actually get more volume."

The result? Potts said he had the best October he's had in 18 years.

"We're saving them money and our business has gone up," Potts said.


Swing vote

Erie County Legislator John Mills knows where he'll be on the morning of Election Day: On the golf course.

Mills said that's where he has gone every Election Day for 19 years, come rain, snow or even sunshine.

If it's snowing, Mills and pretty much the same group of businessmen, lawyers and public workers with the day off just switch to colored balls.

But snow has only fallen once since he's been going to Terry Hills Golf Club, near Batavia, said Mills. And it's the perfect way to end the fall, he said, not to mention to end an election cycle.

"You can't think about an election and putt at the same time."



Some people just don't like Kenmore Village Judge J. Mark Gruber's signs.

So far this campaign season, one sign was set on fire and five were stolen from houses in Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda -- including one nabbed from Gruber's own front lawn.

Gruber is one of three candidates running for one of two spots as Town of Tonawanda justice. He lives near attorney Kevin T. Stocker, one of the other judicial candidates.

"The neighbors call that stretch of Colvin the war zone, because of the signs," Gruber told Off Main Street.

Gruber woke up Sept. 30 to find someone had taken a sign from his Colvin Boulevard lawn. He later learned that someone took his signs from four other houses. He's not sure why.

In the sign burning, a North Tonawanda teen is accused of setting fire to a campaign sign on Parker Boulevard with his cigarette. He had the bad luck to do it while a cop was driving by.

He was hauled into Tonawanda Town Court on an arson charge to appear before Judge John Gruber, Mark Gruber's father, who is not running for re-election.

The 17-year-old apologized in court for burning the sign.

"Doesn't make any difference to me," the elder judge responded, according to his candidate-son. "That wasn't my sign."


For whom the bridge tolls

At stores and restaurants across Buffalo Niagara, shoppers from Ontario are taking advantage of the robust Canadian dollar to buy scads of clothes, electronic equipment and food.

The loonie is worth as much as the American dollar -- or more -- just about everywhere on both sides of the border.

But there's a remedy for Western New Yorkers bummed about the sinking dollar: Just head over to the three main Niagara River bridges, where it feels like it's still 2002.

The Peace Bridge, Lewiston-Queenston and Rainbow bridges all favor the American dollar at the expense of the Canadian dollar. The tolls are $3 American, $3.50 Canadian or $3.50 for any combination of currency.

A Peace Bridge official said the immediate solution for Canadians is to obtain an E-ZPass, because drivers pay $2.70 in either currency.

Hey, keep the tolls this way as long as you want. It makes us Americans feel better about ourselves.
Written by John F. Bonfatti, with contributions from Stephen T. Watson and Elmer Ploetz.

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