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Wire-walk seen of more benefit to Falls, Ont.; Canadian side offers viewing for 100,000

When Nik Wallenda walks a tightrope above Niagara Falls this summer, an unprecedented stream of spectators is expected to flock to the mighty cataracts.

Many of them should carry a passport. Niagara Falls State Park may have a clear viewing area for only 20,000 visitors, according to initial estimates, while Canadian officials could welcome more than 100,000 people to their prime seat at the Horseshoe Falls.

While state officials Monday pledged a "spectacular" show on the American side, others believe the estimates confirm that, for a number of reasons, Ontario stands to benefit most from the stunt.

"It's a good problem to have: too many people," said Jim Diodati, the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont. "It's a problem we had before 9/1 1. We're happy to have it again."

In Canada, the Niagara Gorge is contoured to provide clear panoramic views of both the American and Horseshoe falls from a stretching swath of land above the gorge.

But from the American side, tourists will find just two prime areas to view the Horseshoe Falls -- where Wallenda will walk his wire.

"There will be a limited area for viewing," regional State Parks Director Mark W. Thomas said Monday.

Terrapin Point, near the Top of the Falls restaurant on Goat Island, can fit fewer than 10,000 people, park manager Ron Peters said, while Prospect Point is "more flexible." That area, though, is a half-mile away and only allows tourists to view about half of the Horseshoe Falls.

Those who see Wallenda at the viewing areas on the American side may also have to pay a fee, which is being discussed with Delaware North Cos. General park admission, though, will remain free.

Video screens carrying the wire-walk on live television may be placed in an overflow viewing area in the park or on Old Falls Street, which will feature a series of daredevil-related children's activities. "We will make this event happen, and it will be spectacular, because that's what we do," Peters said.

While state officials were projecting optimism Monday -- and anxiously waiting for a final date -- those on the Canadian side were salivating over the idea of a jam-packed coastline, full casinos and booked hotels -- another apparent advantage they enjoy.

Roughly 16,000 hotel rooms will be available in Niagara Falls, Ont., with 10,000 located directly around the falls.

Only 3,100 hotel rooms exist in Niagara Falls, N.Y., tourism officials said, with 2,000 in the downtown area. That's one reason tourism officials in New York would like to see the event happen in September, when the tourism season is winding down. The American hotel market nearly saturates each summer without such a large event.

"I hope we can capitalize on the large influx," said John Percy, president and chief executive of the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corp. "Hopefully, they don't come to the falls and leave."

To prevent that, Percy will have more tourism workers handing out event guides, and Mayor Paul A. Dyster said State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey has told him she intends to let businesses outside the park capture most of the tourism dollars.

In a presentation to the Ontario government, a consultant hired by Wallenda said the wire-walk would generate $14 million in economic impact and $7.5 million in taxes on the Canadian side alone.

"Let's face it: We're going to make history," said Diodati, the mayor. "This is going to be something no one alive has ever seen. It'll be the biggest event on the planet that day."

But State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, who championed the effort to approve the stunt, say American businesses also will attract tourism dollars.

"A lot of times, because it's cheaper, people stay in hotels on the American side, then go to attractions in Canada," Ceretto said. "I think it will have a regional effect."

Maziarz said the fact that Wallenda has agreed to train at the Seneca Niagara Casino is an indication he takes the American side seriously, potentially as a site for a permanent attraction.

He said the true value of the highly anticipated stunt will go beyond viewing areas and hotel rooms. "The next day, Nik's picture is going to be on the front page, above the fold, of every paper around the world," he said. "You're going to have people saying, 'You know what? We better give Niagara Falls a shot for our next vacation.' "