More than 50 bands will perform free this summer at the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor, and on Wednesday a crowd of about 100 came on foot, bicycles and in boats to hear some of the first guitar riffs of the season.
"We just love the water," said Kathy Oswald as her husband, Lee, tied their boat, Max'd Out Again, to the Tonawanda side of the harbor. "We have to come on Wednesdays [to get a space for the boat] because by Thursday it's packed."
The Town of Tonawanda couple brought some family members on Wednesday to listen to the Blues Child and Billy McEwen bands, who played on the Sweeney Street stage in North Tonawanda.
The two Western New York bands kicked off the Anchor Marine Canal Concert Series, which features local and national acts at 6 p.m. Wednesdays in North Tonawanda and at 7 p.m. Fridays in the City of Tonawanda.
The first concert of the Molson Canal Concert Series on the North Tonawanda side of the harbor was held Sunday with the Robert Cray Band. It will continue with major acts every Saturday night through Sept. 1.
Meanwhile, Kathy Carr and Friends will play at 7 p.m. today on the Sweeney Street stage.
All this free music has been played along the Erie Canal each summer since 2004, four years after the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor Committee was formed to help create events tied to Gateway Park, which was completed in 1999.
"It brings people to our area who wouldn't normally come," said Joyce Santiago, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas. "We do a lot at the Chamber to promote it out of the region."
It's also a draw for nearby residents like Jim and Anita Costello of Amherst, who biked to the park on Wednesday night and said they have a summer tradition of going out for dinner and then attending the free Friday concerts in Tonawanda.
"No matter how good or bad the bands are, we come and see them," said Anita Costello. "We like blues, rock, whatever is free."
This year, concert coordinators and the Chamber printed 10,000 laminated wallet-sized cards with the schedule of bands, and the Chamber paid for ads on local Web sites and in magazines.
Santiago said the business community is still figuring out how to capitalize on all the summer concert-goers, but the potential is definitely there.
She believes that other activities held at the harbor, as well as the free concerts, have made the two cities a more attractive location for small businesses.
James B. Sullivan, economic development director for North Tonawanda, said the concerts emphasize what can happen when the harbor area is marketed, rather than promoting the cities separately.
"It helps as far as branding the area," he said. "We are looking at this as the Gateway Harbor area as opposed to the North Tonawanda and City of Tonawanda area."
Sullivan, who heads up the Lumber City Development Corp., said a survey of boaters to the harbor last year, which included income verification, showed many visitors have an annual income of $250,000 or higher and several made more than $500,000.
Beverly Loxterman, a member of North Tonawanda's Waterfront Commission, rode her motorcycle to Wednesday's concert.
She said there wasn't much public use of the harbor area before the park was built and free concerts were offered, but that's all changed now.
"Four years ago when we started, if we got 2,000 or 3,000 people on a Saturday night that was great and now we get in excess of 10,000 to 15,000 and it's really packed," she said. "The boat traffic on Saturdays are four and five deep and 10 people per boat, and a lot can't even find a place to park."
However, she said, there's always room for another motorcycle.