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STILL FESTIVE IN THE FALLS
A NEW TRADITION RETURNS THE LIGHT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

When A Festival of Lights was extinguished two years ago, Maureen Kellick could have chosen to curse the darkness.

But the city's new tourism event coordinator saw the light.

"We didn't want a dark holiday season, and we didn't want to duplicate the Festival of Lights," Kellick said. "We wanted to go in a different direction and bring together all the wonders of a very diverse community."

A Festival of Lights, a private organization not connected with the city, announced in the summer of 2001 it was ending its 20-year run because of dwindling funds and competition from a similar festival in Niagara Falls, Ont.

With no budget, no real organization and just a few months to winter, Kellick turned into a one-woman dynamo.

The 44-day Festival of Lights had focused on the downtown area, but Kellick had a wider vision; she hit the phones and started calling more than 30 countywide community and church groups, business and tourist organizations that sponsored individual events over the winter.

"I told them to keep on doing what they've been doing, but to work together to create a beautiful calendar of events for the holiday season," Kellick said.

Almost single-handedly, she found a way to reignite Niagara's off-season by stringing scores of community events from the falls to Fort Niagara into one coordinated celebration of winter.

And then she added new events, like the Winter Party at the Wintergarden, a warming bash of live entertainment and fireworks setting off the first day of winter; and the Ice Festival, an art show of 20-foot-tall ice sculptures, winter sports and entertainment to mark the first days of February.

Thus was born Winterfest Niagara, which last year warmed the wintry landscape like no other festival before it, organizers and participants said.

"The first year was extraordinary," said Danielle Iadicicco, the events coordinator. "The response from the community was overwhelming."

The year before Winterfest was formed, the Salvation Army Niagara Falls Corps held its first "Journey to Bethlehem," a guided walk through Biblical events, complete with live animals and costumed characters. But joining the Winterfest calendar has brought more people to the journey -- an estimated 600 last year over the three-day period.

"We're really happy to be part of Winterfest," said Capt. Gregory Hartshorn. "It breeds a sense of community. Niagara Falls has developed an identity crisis over the years and anything that brings us together is so important."

Annie Chapman, general manager of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority that provides housing for seniors and low-income families, couldn't agree more. The authority sponsored a concert at last year's festival.

"Winterfest brought the entire community together," Chapman said. "People matter on all levels and Winterfest is a reflection of the Niagara community. The concert was uplifting for everyone."

The eight-week festival this year is a diverse array of 59 cultural, ethnic, historical and sports events and traditional holiday celebrations in more than 30 locations across Niagara County.

"Many of the existing events were small and not widely known outside their individual communities," said Kellick, who works for the Niagara Falls Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We brought them all together into one celebration of the winter season."

Even Niagara Falls, Ont., doesn't have anything quite like Winterfest. That city's 20th annual Winter Festival of Lights runs this year from Nov. 23 to Jan. 21.

"Our festival is more of a light display, with parades and fireworks," said Brian Merrett, chairman of the Niagara (Ont.) Parks Commission. "Winterfest provides more diversity that can be enjoyed by people from both sides of the border."

Winterfest organizers expect to repeat, if not surpass last year's success.

"Bringing it all together was an enormous job, but by throwing the spotlight on all areas of Niagara County, we expect the events to catch fire like they did last year," Kellick said.

While A Festival of Lights was finally blacked out by constantly being in the red, Winterfest doesn't have the same money woes because each of the 30 or so organizations involved finance their own events, Kellick noted. And the costs vary widely. The Winter Party at the Wintergarden costs about $10,000 to hold, she estimated, whereas a smaller church-sponsored event might cost much less.

"Winterfest was not meant to replace A Festival of Lights," Iadicicco said, "but it now clearly exists in its place."

This year there are twice as many events as last, and more are planned for next year, she added.

Although the calendar of events started Saturday with a Polish arts and crafts workshop at Niagara University's Castellani Art Museum, Winterfest officially kicks off with the YMCA 5K run Nov. 23 and ends with the ice festival Feb. 1 and 2.

The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station will hold its annual Tops in Blue "Spirit of America" production this year in Niagara University's Gallagher Center at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 26.

The event last year drew about 12,000 people to the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center, but with the convention center otherwise engaged, the Air Force show is limited to about 2,000 seats in the Gallagher Center, said Neil E. Nolf, air base spokesman. The free tickets are therefore limited and will be handed out at City Hall between 4 and 6 p.m. Monday, he said.

"We wanted to make sure that we maintained this great tradition in Niagara and being part of Winterfest helps to achieve that," said Col. Wade Farris, commander of the air base.

The Salvation Army's free "Journey to Bethlehem" will be held Dec. 19 to 21 in the Niagara Falls facility at 7018 Buffalo Ave. More information can be obtained by calling 283-7697.

The Housing Authority's Chapman said this year's free concert sponsored by the authority and the Main Street Business & Professional Association on Dec. 13 in the Family Resource Building, 3001 Ninth St., is expected to attract 200 people. At 4:30 p.m., members of the authority's youth choir will sing carols to elderly residents of Wrobel Towers, one of the housing authority's properties.

Information on all the events is available by calling 286-4325.

Jerald I. Wolfgang, the longtime chairman of A Festival of Lights, has been there, done that.

His event, which ran from late November to Dec. 31, was developed by a private organization to brighten the local economy during the off-tourist season. At its peak, the light extravaganza attracted upwards of 800,000 visitors to the otherwise bleak downtown area.

Two years after the show began on this side of the Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, Ont., came up with its own Winter Festival of Lights, an event that would grow ever brighter over the years with sponsorship from such corporate heavyweights as the Disney Co., and steady financial support from local and federal government.

As the Winter Festival of Lights, along with all the burgeoning development and tourist attractions flourished on the other side of the Niagara River, the future of this city's lights festival grew dimmer. While sponsors poured $1 million into the Ontario festival, the lights festival on this side of the border flickered by on half that amount.

The New York Power Authority provided thousands of dollars worth of free electricity during the festival, but private and corporate funding became increasingly harder to come by.

Toward the end, the floundering festival tried to revamp the event with an elaborate fairy tale theme featuring the mythical Princess Aragain -- that's Niagara spelled backwards; and that's how desperate the New York-side festival had become, organizers admitted.

"Yeah, it's sad," general chairman Carmen A. Granto said when the decision was made to end the festival. "But it would have been sadder to keep this thing going."

Now comes Winterfest and Wolfgang urged the community to get behind it.

"Winter events in Niagara Falls have come and gone over the years," he said, recalling a short-lived downtown winter festival he headed many years ago that featured ice sculptures and other winter events.

"But Winterfest is different," Wolfgang said. "It connects the winter scene into one total package and ties it into the community. I wish them a lot of luck."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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