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Artpark emerges as a high school graduation gateway; 1,700 seniors are getting diplomas in four days

A lot of graduating seniors will pack into two Buffalo concert halls or a spot at the University at Buffalo North Campus this weekend, but those aren't the only venues for high school graduation ceremonies.

Artpark has carved a nice little niche for itself, too -- and this weekend will host half of the public school graduations in Niagara County, along with the one from Grand Island High.

"It all happens in four days," Artpark President George D. Osborne said. "It's really been amazing, because almost everybody, with the exception of Niagara Falls High School and Niagara Catholic, has had their graduations here at least once in the past 20 years."

Niagara Wheatfield High School got things started Thursday night at the park's Mainstage Theater. The school awarded 365 diplomas.

By the end of the weekend, more than 1,700 high school seniors, and thousands more of their family members and friends, will enjoy a milestone gathering along the Niagara Gorge. Other schools using the park are Lewiston-Porter, Lockport, North Tonawanda and Wilson.

Artpark Community Development Director Maureen C. Kellick said that the theater holds 2,400 and that there's always a full house, with adequate space and parking.

"The beautiful thing is that the village is always swarming and always abuzz," Kellick said. "For the restaurants to have these families stopping out before the graduation, whether it's for a full-blown, dressed-up meal or a pizza or for ice cream, having it at Artpark makes it a nice day for the families. I hope the families linger in Lewiston."

Nearby, on Center Street, the village hosts its annual GardenFest on Saturday and Sunday, closing the street from Fifth Street to Fourth, with 50 garden-related vendors. Mayor Terry C. Collesano said the village works with police to direct graduation traffic around the festival.

"The businesspeople look forward to most of these events that bring in a lot of people," Collesano said.

Osborne said many schools come to Artpark because they have outgrown the auditoriums in their own schools. Those attending large ceremonies -- Lockport and North Tonawanda, for example -- can use lawn seating if needed.

There are not a lot of other choices, Osborne said.

"Kleinhans had to give preferances to Buffalo schools, for some reason. Shea's and Kleinhans both have graduations, and UB Center for the Arts," Osborne said, noting that other districts in Erie County also compete for those sites and that Grand Island High recently moved its graduation ceremony to Artpark.

"It's been over two decades that Artpark has hosted not only graduation ceremonies, but also several dance recitals," Kellick said. "We do it as part of a community service, there's no huge rental fee. We don't make any money on this."

The cost is about $2,000 for rental with a flat parking fee of $500, Osborne said, so parents don't have to pay to park. That's about half the cost for some other sites, he said.

Niagara Wheatfield Superintendent Carl H. Militello said the district has used Artpark for graduations for many years, to positive reviews.

"They like the setting, the culture. It's beautiful," Militello said. "Our auditorium won't fit everybody, and this gives everybody a chance to attend. Graduation is all about the family."

Militello said the Thursday night graduation ceremony has been a tradition for the school, and gives families a chance to spend the weekend together.

Lewiston-Porter Principal Paul J. Casseri said Artpark works well for the school because it doesn't have to limit tickets, and students can bring every grandparent, every aunt and uncle, every cousin, if they want.

He also said Artpark was a natural fit for Lew-Port.

"This being an arts community, we have a very strong fine arts program here at Lewiston, and a lot of our kids work at Artpark," Casseri said. "It does feel like our auditorium."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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