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Council chief cautiously optimistic about developer, Holiday Market plan

Days after developer Mark Rivers released more details about his proposed $1 million Niagara Holiday Market, the City Council chairman was cautiously optimistic about its planned events and funding sources.

Rivers, an Ellicottville native who aims to host a national holiday destination on Old Falls Street for 36 days this winter, submitted his latest progress report to the City Council last week.

In addition to a previously announced strip of vendors and a concert series, the report featured descriptions and photos of newly announced events, including:

A food and wine festival sponsored by Wegmans from Dec. 16-18 that would include tastings, workshops, cooking demonstrations and celebrity chef appearances.

What is being billed as Western New York's largest Christmas tree, with a Rockefeller Center-style lighting ceremony to be broadcast on local television.

WNY's largest holiday ice rink, across Rainbow Boulevard from the Rainbow Centre mall, which would feature two events with former Buffalo Sabres Gilbert Perreault and Michael Peca and public ice skating.

A Winter Wonderland in Niagara Falls State Park, complete with horse-drawn sleigh rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, an ice sculpture competition and a snowman contest.

A Santa's Workshop for children to meet and take photos with Santa Claus.

"We're creating a world-class event, and we're just marching along and making great progress," Rivers told The Buffalo News. "We have tremendous support from all sorts of businesses and organizations throughout Western New York."

The report stated that Rivers' company, Brix Niagara LLC, has made "outstanding progress" and has completed 75 percent of programming for major events.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster and regional economic development officials have supported the project in the hopes that it could draw tourists from around the region during the typically tourism-light winter.

Council Chairman Sam Fruscione said he was "pleased to see" Rivers has been successful booking the Canadian Tenors, Aaron Neville, Elisabeth Von Trapp and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for four concerts from Nov. 25 to Dec. 17.

"That's all good stuff," he said. "That's the kind of stuff we want to see. But the bottom line is what's going on with the money."

Fruscione said Rivers should provide concrete financial commitments from sponsors, specifically whether each sponsor will be making in-kind donations or supplying cash. He was critical of a previous report for that reason.

Sponsorships by Wegmans, the Seneca Niagara Hotel & Casino, Entercom and Niagara County Community College were previously announced. Tthe latest report included sponsorships by and partnerships with the New York Lottery, Comfort Inn The Pointe of Niagara Falls, WIVB-TV and The Buffalo News.

The value of those sponsorships exceeds $275,000, Rivers said, but he noted that agreements with performers, sponsors and vendors prevent Brix Niagara from releasing specific financial information or announcements of participation from some sponsors.

More "in-the-pipeline" initiatives, sponsorships and partnerships will be disclosed in the coming weeks, the report stated.

Fruscione said he wants a list of the 40 vendors Rivers said have expressed interest in selling their wares along Old Falls Street during the festival, as well as itemized expenditures for the more than $25,000 the company has requested to be reimbursed.

That money was for on-the-ground sales and marketing personnel, according to the report, and makes up less than 27 percent of initial funds received from the city and state.

"The Council has a serious fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers, and we can't make votes based on emotions," Fruscione said.

He said Rivers will have until the Sept. 19 City Council meeting to provide lawmakers with additional information.

Rivers said he has made himself accessible and added that no Council members or other city officials have directly asked him about the project.

On Sept. 19, the Council will vote on whether to release the additional $185,000 in city casino cash that was slated to be disbursed once at least 40 sponsorships and vendor leases were lined up.

The Council provided an initial $40,000, and the developer is expected to raise $535,000 from sponsorships, income and services. Also, $225,000 would come from the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.

The report billed the market as "America's Grandest Holiday Wonderland." It would be part German Christmas market, part Norman Rockwell Main Street and part Rockefeller Center.

Rivers said he anticipates another 40 vendors will commit to the market by the end of summer and that vendors will range from international and regional brands to artisans.

Retail booths would cost between $600 and $800, plus a $75 electric and setup fee. Food vendors would be charged more, though the festival will feature select specialty food vendors and more retail vendors.

e-mail: cspecht@buffnews.com

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