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Niagara Falls is walking its own wire

The Niagara Falls publicity stunt was born like this: It was September 1827. A group of hoteliers wanted to make a quick buck. So they sent an old lake schooner, filled with terrified animals, over the brink. The spectacle, as planned, drew thousands. Many of the animals died in the plunge.

It's 184 years later, and we're still grasping at ghoulish curiosities at Niagara.

Famed wire walker Nik Wallenda wants to cross the Horseshoe Falls on his tightrope, and debate over the planned escapade has dominated discussion on both sides of the famous falls for months.

The stunt, already given the go-ahead by Albany, now hinges on a decision by the Canadians. But whether Wallenda walks or not is beside the point.

Debate over the high-wire act is a distraction to the real problems that plague Niagara Falls. Blight, unemployment and a worn-out reputation for hucksterism overshadow a natural wonder that is still unique to the world.

While we've been peering up into the mist wondering if Wallenda could make it, a decade-old idea to build something that honors the beauty of Niagara Falls is teetering on its own tightrope.

It could be a do-or-die moment for the Niagara Experience Center.

The idea is to create a world-class museum and welcome center in Niagara Falls that would entertain and educate visitors while linking them to attractions throughout the region. Without regional support, the idea is as fleeting as the publicity we'd get from Wallenda's stunt.

The Experience Center vision, first floated by local historian Paul Gromosiak and later touted by then-Gov. George E. Pataki, looked all but dead three years ago.

Volunteers charged with getting it off the ground had stopped meeting. A $10 million promise by Pataki for the project never materialized, and its estimated $100 million price tag made it seem like just another fanciful silver bullet.

The project, against all odds, has a new glimmer of hope. The News reported last week that the Experience Center idea resurfaced in a small-group tourism discussion of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council. The council is looking for "transformational projects" to compete for state funding.

The Niagara Experience Center is a long way off from reality, but simply leaping into the region's mindset is a major step forward. Real, but slow, progress has taken place in Niagara Falls in the years since the plan first emerged.

It would take years of planning -- and, let's face reality, private-sector interest -- but the Experience Center is a project that could benefit heritage and cultural attractions in Erie County by enticing visitors out of Niagara Falls State Park and into places like the Albright-Knox.

It's not hard to see why Wallenda's plan for Niagara Falls has captured our imaginations. It was only a year ago that French high-wire artist Didier Pasquette traversed the 150-foot space between the Liberty Building's statues in Buffalo.

The moment seemed magical. It drew crowds looking into the sky as the sun set over Lake Erie. But it latest only three minutes.

Wallenda's walk -- if allowed -- would be a greater feat, but similarly fleeting.

The cameras will be turned off. The spectators will go home, and we'll still be left with a natural wonder that isn't living up to its potential.

Pulling off a major stunt like the Experience Center, by contrast, could finally free Niagara Falls from its huckster reputation.


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