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Stunts alone won't save Niagara Falls

It is not so much the danger. It is the scent of desperation.

I strongly suspect that Nik Wallenda, of the famous tightrope-walking family, can tip-toe along a high wire strung over Niagara Falls this summer without toppling into the drink.

What bothers me about the stunt is the eagerness of some public officials to embrace it.

Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, stepped to the podium at Thursday's news conference and, like a carnival barker, emitted a single-word exhortation: "Electrifying." The volume of that debateable declaration may have awakened desk clerks at every dreary drive-up motel along Niagara Falls Boulevard.

I was about to call for decorum, but well, this is Niagara Falls. Subtlety was crushed beneath a waterfall of crassness and commercialism two centuries ago. The Canadian side is an ode to wax museums, theme restaurants and arcades. All of which can be fun, if you are in the mood. But they do not have much to do with parkland, natural beauty and the quiet contemplation of a hydro-wonder.

With tougher border rules squeezing tourism on the Canadian side, and with long-empty storefronts pockmarking New York's parcel, the back-to-the-future notion of a wire-walker apparently struck some folks as inspired. Hyperventilating State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, termed it "one of the most highly anticipated events in the world in 2012."

Not if Kim Kardashian decides to get married again.

To me, nothing screams "civic desperation" more than a one-time, attract-a-crowd gimmick. The idea is to generate excitement, to pump air into a leaky balloon, to jump into a 24-hour news cycle. This will no doubt draw international notice and put -- for a few days, anyway -- extra dollars in the tourism till.

Granted, there are worse ways to remind the world Niagara Falls is on the tourism map. The folks hyped up about this have good intentions. Wallenda seems like a nice guy with Teflon-coated nerves and an indisputable talent.

To my mind, re-connecting with a tawdry past of stunt-makers and barrel-riders is not an enlightened marketing strategy. Only on the assurance that wire-walkers would -- like a rare eclipse -- be seen only every 20 years did more rational heads sign on.

"The concern was that, if this occurs often, it cheapens the real attraction," said Paul Dyster, Niagara Falls' mayor. "People [around the world] have a positive image of the Falls, and we have to be careful not to mess that up."

Dyster is a new brand of Niagara Falls politician, an eco-friendly academic with a progressive sensibility. He is as rare a sight among the stereotypically hacky -- and sometimes corrupt -- Niagara Falls politicos as a flamingo amid crows. Dyster has jettisoned quick-fix tacky for a solid revival strategy centered on reconnecting downtown to the city's natural wonder and resurrecting the small-business roots of Old Falls Street, the city's commercial spine.

The Wintergarden "wall" separating people from the falls was demolished; cobblestone streets were restored; shops and eateries are coming to the old helium balloon launch; and street festivals and seasonal markets draw crowds.

"We're going back to the traditional streetscape," Dyster said. "We want to re-create the small urban spaces we lost in the disaster of [1960s] urban renewal. They took down Old Falls Street and put up these Stalinist structures."

It is a bedrock revival plan for a long-stagnant border town. Wallenda may draw a crowd and pump up the volume. But getting Niagara Falls back on its feet is a more impressive balancing act than anything a wire-walker will do.