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Holiday Market still controversial despite recent audit

Depending on whom you talk to in this city, the Niagara Holiday Market was either a rare downtown success or a waste of taxpayer money.

A final report and audit on the market's financial results, released for public viewing Tuesday, hasn't done much to reconcile the differences in the way public officials view the event.

The report shows that Idaho developer Mark Rivers, who organized the Christmas event with a combination of public money and local sponsorships, did not get rich by running the event, as some have suggested.

About $1,000 remains in the bank account for the market, according to the audit, which was performed by Global Spectrum Inc. and a Buffalo accounting firm. The account was in the red before the state's USA Niagara Development Corp. paid a final invoice.

In addition, the market's concert series was not as successful as organizers had hoped, according to the report. Ticket sales totaled $48,000, while the concert cost more than $113,000 to run.

But local officials say the thousands who came to the event from Nov. 25 through New Year's Day proved it was a success.

USA Niagara Development Corp. President Christopher J. Schoepflin and Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the market showed that people will come downtown during the winter months and that retail efforts can be successful downtown.

"The answer to those questions proved to be yes, which we view as a positive," Schoepflin said.

The market also drew thousands of people to Old Falls Street during the otherwise slow winter season, the mayor said.

"In years previous, the area was desolate in wintertime," Dyster said. "Those are two things people would not have believed are possible before we did this."

Officials said the market was a good first step toward bringing people from across the region to the Falls, and some details, such as the number of concerts offered or the length of the market, could be adjusted and improved in later years.

But Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, a critic of the market since its inception, said it was a good idea but "the organization was terrible."

Fruscione said the audit did not provide enough specifics and did not include receipts from Rivers for purchases.

The chairman questioned the $108,600 Rivers listed in the report for salaries and nearly $20,000 he listed for landscaping. He accused Rivers of using public money for his own gain and even suggested he could face civil or criminal penalties.

"This only sends us more red flags," Fruscione said.

The report showed that Rivers raised close to $200,000 in sponsorships from local businesses, as well as $100,000 worth of in-kind donations from other businesses and media organizations, including The Buffalo News. About $450,000 in public funds from the state and city were used for the festival.

While Rivers originally hoped for more than 80 daily vendors, the market included 25 vendors who remained open for all 37 days, 12 vendors who opened during select weeks and three food and craft tents with multiple vendors inside, according to the report.

Despite his criticism, Fruscione said he hopes to use the market booths for summer retail, especially during the Nik Wallenda high-wire walk in June. State officials have made similar plans for events during the stunt.

Fruscione opposed the idea of Rivers running the holiday market event next year, while Dyster and Schoepflin have said they are generally open to the idea of another market and will meet with stakeholders in the coming months to discuss options.