The Niagara Holiday Market, which has drawn regional shoppers to Old Falls Street since Nov. 25, officially ends tonight.
But officials hope its impact on the city's tourism economy is just beginning.
Emboldened by positive reviews from vendors, state officials are aiming to help some of the festival's small businesses create a more permanent presence downtown.
"We think we can convert a half-dozen or a dozen of them into 100-day vendors this summer and then a couple years from now, I expect that some of them will be opening their first brick-and-mortar store as year-round retailers," said USA Niagara Development Corp. President Christopher J. Schoepflin.
The market got off to a slow start but picked up speed as shoppers from across Western New York traveled to Old Falls Street each weekend. Officials said several vendors reported selling out of merchandise during the market's first few weeks.
The Holiday Market was not just a way to bring life to an otherwise vacant space, officials said, but to find out how much retail demand was left in the city after the success of the Fashion Outlets on Military Road and other nearby developments.
"We know that, during the summer tourism season, you can sell just about anything to tourists in Niagara Falls, because they need everything, from a slushie to a clean T-shirt because they spilled the slushie on the T-shirt, and an umbrella when it rains," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "But since Rainbow [Centre] Mall closed, it's been an open question: What is the market for retail in downtown? Is there a market? And I think what Holiday Market is showing is that, if you offer the right mixture of goods, that you can draw shoppers from throughout the region down there."
"What the Holiday Market has allowed us to do is to test the theory that nichey, crafty, high-end retail, sort of nonconventional retail, locally made, made in America, artsy-type of stuff, that there's a market for this in the downtown area," he said.
The festival was put on with $450,000 in city and state money, and no definitive plans to fund the market next year have been hashed out, though officials would like to see it continue. Council Chairman Sam Fruscione has questioned whether developer Mark Rivers spent all of that public money wisely.
Dyster and Schoepflin, on the other hand, say the market allowed the city a rare opportunity to test the viability of certain retail stores before making a major investment.
"Economic development comes large and small, different shapes and sizes, and one of the economic development approaches in the Holiday Market is testing retail," Schoepflin said. "One thing we're affirming with story after story from the vendors is that it's proven to be successful for them in just a 30-day test period for a relatively small investment to test that theory as opposed to building 200,000 square feet in the Rainbow Centre and seeing if it works at $300 a square foot, which is $60 million."
The city and state now have proof of retail success to present to potential investors, officials said.
"I think that having the experience of the Holiday Market would encourage people," Dyster said. "If somebody says, 'Oh no, if you sell high-quality goods there, nobody will buy them,' well, you can say, 'Wait a second, we just did the Holiday Market and it worked.' "
The state-built Old Falls Street attracts pedestrians frequenting the Seneca Niagara Casino, the Sheraton on Third Street and, in summer months, tourists from Niagara Falls State Park. It has become downtown's public gathering place for concerts and special events.
Most would agree the street could use additional retail space, though, and the city and state have plenty of parcels to offer.
They include the 200,000 square feet of the former Rainbow Centre Mall not being used for the planned $30.6 million Niagara County Community College culinary institute and the first floor of the planned mixed-use building at 310 Rainbow Blvd.
Vendor booths used during the Holiday Market could also be repurposed for the summer months, officials said, and rented out in clusters. The Conference Center Niagara Falls could also be used.
The city is also encouraging retail frontage on Old Falls Street at the former TeleTech call center building owned by James "Harry" Williams.
The type of retail the city and state attract to Old Falls Street will help determine the area's character, officials say.
"We're trying to reinvent downtowns here, right?" said Dyster. "This is something kind of new, and there are other cities that have been successful with this, and we are kind of trying to follow in that direction, so we're looking at the Bostons and the Baltimores and others of the world, trying to get a feel for what's been successful in other places. And we think that nichey things that appeal to a specialized audience are what works in downtown."
"We think you have to have a special public place in order to do that. We're trying to be like Bryant Park and Faneuil Hall, so we're trying to pick up some of that ambience here and make it uniquely ours. We think that that's a niche that works and then this is a way of validating that."
The city should be careful not to out-price its residents, as happened in the Rainbow Centre Mall, said City Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti.
"But, by the same token, I'm concerned that we don't go the other way and have it be some sort of a flea market or some low-end retail that won't be appealing to the tourists or the locals," she said. "I think that we're in a position right now downtown, on Old Falls Street, that we are not the desperados that we have been for the last 20 years and that maybe it would behoove us to be a little more selective about who we allow to go in there."
The popularity of the market's Wegmans Taste of the Season food and wine festival also gave officials proof that cooking could be a key element of programming along the cobblestone street.
"If one of the things we've learned from the market is a high degree of regional interest in food and beverage, and we have this great school coming down here with amazing new facility and resources, that there could be leverage there," Schoepflin said.