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Falls aims to build on wire-walk momentum; Wallenda publicity could benefit city

More than 13 million people around the globe tuned in June 15 to watch Nik Wallenda walk across Niagara Falls, and many say the thundering waterfalls has never looked better.

But can the city use the stunt to spring itself forward, or will June 15 be remembered as another perfect opportunity that Niagara Falls managed to squander?

"It's in the forefront of people's minds at this point, and that's the best time to capture people's attention -- either a developer or tourist," said John Percy, president and chief executive of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "This is the time to capitalize on that."

Since the walk, tourists have been scooping up hotel rooms on the American side at a rapid pace. Businesses raked in $3.3 million on the day of the walk, and officials expect an uptick in visitors for the next few years.

Many hope the glowing publicity will encourage investors to dip their toes into a development market that has long been hobbled by inertia and by a toxic political climate.

But change in the Falls won't happen overnight, others caution. The city's decline was hastened by decades of bad decisions, they say, and will only be reversed through years of smart development that addresses the city's inherent problems.

Most agree, though, that Wallenda's walk can only help.

"Everyone's excited about how well this went," said regional State Parks Director Mark W. Thomas. "There's a lot of momentum carrying into the summer season, and that's a good thing."

Job No. 1 will be making sure the falls themselves look as good to visitors as they did to millions of viewers on TV.

A recent $25 million state injection for Niagara Falls State Park will be used to landscape Prospect Point, to repave trails on Goat Island and to install new railings in the park and new elevators at the Cave of the Winds.

The state park has seen increased crowds in the past few years because of border restrictions and families who want to vacation close to home.

"We just think this event will build on that," Thomas said.

Outside the park, the next act of the show will be getting a long-term Wallenda attraction built on the American side, said State Sen. George D. Maziarz.

The Newfane Republican said he already has contacted a handful of developers about building a Wallenda attraction that would include a museum, a virtual wire-walking simulator and live appearances by Wallenda.

He also has encouraged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to contact billionaire developer Donald Trump about building something in Niagara Falls.

"I think we've got to go out and find [developers] and convince them we can replicate this on a regular basis," Maziarz said. "Everyone says, 'We need attractions on the U.S. side to attract people.' Some of the naysayers, when I mention it to them, they say, 'It's only one thing.' But you've got to start somewhere, and we can start with this."

Wallenda has told officials he will return to the falls in October, and his father said Wallenda favors building the attraction on the American side because the U.S. city needs it more than Niagara Falls, Ont.

The city has been contacted by a few developers since the Wallenda walk and is reaching out to others who have expressed interest in the Falls in the past, said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

Those developers should be encouraged that the city appeared to have its act together on the worldwide stage, officials said:

*A host of agencies developed a plan to overcome limited downtown parking and help tourists get into and out of the city at a reasonable pace.

*The state's USA Niagara Development Corp. put on a family-friendly carnival on Old Falls Street that was unmatched on the Canadian side.

*And city police reported no arrests at the jampacked event.

"That goes a long way toward getting the development community confident with working with them," said W. Earl McCartney, executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Hamister Group.

"We are seeing some positive things in Niagara Falls that indicate to us that this would be a good time to invest in that [market]," he added.

Hamister plans to build a $22 million upscale hotel, residential and retail development a block from Niagara Falls State Park.

McCartney said the events-based strategy pursued by Dyster's administration and more than $20 million in recent developments from the state have developers taking a second look at the Falls' downtown tourism district.

"There's still a lot that needs to happen, but they're moving in the right direction," he said.

The city still faces a number of challenges, others point out, including its poverty, the limited summer tourist season, slow-moving developers, a lack of historic buildings and political infighting that appeared to re-emerge in recent months.

But Wallenda's walk also forced officials of all political stripes and from different agencies to pull together for the sake of the event, they said.

"We can agree to disagree on some things, yeah, but we're all focused on the same goal, and look what we accomplished," said Percy, the tourism official. "That's what we've learned from this."

The Falls needs to transform itself from an attraction to a destination by adding more international flights to its airport, said Eddie Friel, tourism professor at Niagara University.

Western New York also should develop a coordinated tourism strategy that adds offerings in Niagara Falls while pointing the 8 million yearly falls tourists to other regional attractions, officials said, with ideas such as the proposed Niagara Experience Center.

"I think Nik Wallenda is forever linked to Niagara Falls, and I think there are ways going forward to leverage that positively," said USA Niagara Development President Christopher J. Schoepflin. "But it's incumbent upon us to continue the long, tough slog of urban redevelopment in a small geographic area that was subject to large-scale urban renewal."

Perhaps the Wallenda walk gave that process a bit of a push, others say.

"There was a lot of skepticism about whether we could pull this event off, and we did," Dyster said.

He added: "What was Wallenda's lesson? Don't let people tell you you can't do something. That's a good lesson for Niagara Falls, and that's a good lesson for Western New York, isn't it?"

email: cspecht@buffnews.com