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Niagara Holiday Market gets final go-ahead

A $1 million winter festival aimed at drawing 400,000 people downtown between Thanksgiving and New Year's has cleared its final hurdle.

The City Council on Monday voted to commit $185,000 to the Niagara Holiday Market, Ellicottville native Mark Rivers' plan to create "the largest European-style market and festival in the U.S." The market will feature a concert series, specialty vendors, a food and wine festival, outdoor ice rink and Rockefeller Center-style Christmas tree lighting.

"I think it's a great step forward toward executing this vision of world-class wintertime attractions in the Falls," Rivers told The Buffalo News. "I think it's a strong message from the political structure of Niagara Falls to the entire region that downtown is open for business and encouraging of business and wants to do great things there."

The festival would run on Old Falls Street south of the Seneca Niagara Casino from Nov. 26 to New Year's and would include:

*A food and wine festival sponsored by Wegmans featuring workshops, cooking demonstrations and celebrity chef appearances.

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

*A row of more than 40 specialty vendors and artisans, including local vendors such as Tony Walker & Co.

*A concert series featuring the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Canadian Tenors, Aaron Neville and Elisabeth von Trapp.

*Western New York's largest Christmas tree, with a lighting ceremony to be broadcast on local television, and an outdoor ice rink featuring public skating and events with former Buffalo Sabres Gilbert Perreault and Michael Peca.

"We needed to find something to do as far as [bringing people downtown] in winter weather," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "I think we've got a hit, and it hasn't even happened yet."

The Idaho developer, who presented his most recent plans to the Council on Monday, overcame a series of obstacles to secure funding for the project. The Council in March pledged $40,000 but demanded more specifics from Rivers before committing the rest of the funds, which came from casino revenues.

The city's Tourism Board gave the project a thumbs-down in March, and Council Chairman Sam Fruscione demanded Rivers show more detail in previous progress reports.

In an Aug. 29 meeting with city officials, Rivers addressed those concerns, presenting a specific plan complete with financial commitments, which Rivers said amount to $350,000 from high-profile vendors such as Wegmans, the Seneca Niagara Casino and Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Western New York.

"I believe it's 100 percent legitimate because he met our objectives we set for him," Fruscione said. "Based on that and approval from USA Niagara and the state, we have to move forward."

The market, which Rivers hopes to make an annual event, will be funded with $225,000 in city funds, $225,000 from the state's USA Niagara Development Corp., $15,000 from Global Spectrum and $535,000 from sponsorships, income and services secured by Rivers' Brix & Co.

The city money will be used mostly for expenses such as the ice rink and deposits for the musicians and concert producers. Rivers, who bore most of the up-front costs, will be reimbursed with additional funds.

Rivers expects to sign a contract for the ice rink today. After the latest go-ahead, he'll ramp up construction of vendor booths and other production details. "[It's an] all-out sprint," he said. "We've got nine weeks. We're going to take care of some of the operating things to get set up."

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