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Wallenda walk won't be cash cow for state

Nik Wallenda will make money when he walks across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The Seneca Niagara Casino paid him to practice there this month, and ABC-TV will pay him to walk over the falls next month.

The Canadian government also will make money. It aims to rake in nearly $200,000 by renting out restaurants and advertisement space in the parks around the falls. The Canadian tourism businesses are positioned to profit, as well.

But on the U.S. side, the picture is a bit different.

New York State doesn't plan to rent out areas of Niagara Falls State Park to corporate sponsors or sell thousands of dollars' worth of ads there. The land around the falls, state officials say, is for the public to enjoy, not for the government to use for profit.

The city, meanwhile, doesn't have a bustling tourist strip along the likes of Canada, and downtown has far fewer businesses.

So the Canadians are set to make a greater profit June 15.

From the get-go, Canada has aimed to make money from Wallenda's stunt. Before granting permission, Niagara Parks commissioners said they wanted to be sure the Ontario government profited from the daredevil crossing the cataracts.

"I'm looking at this as an opportunity where we might make some money," Canadian Parks Commissioner Vincent Kerrio said in a meeting earlier this year.

What they came up with is a glossy promotional plan that advertises the government's system of parks and restaurants online -- and allows people to rent out the space during Wallenda's walk.

Corporate sponsors or other private parties can rent the restaurants and park areas for up to $30,000 per venue. Customers can expect "casual elegance," gourmet food selections and a breathtaking view of the falls.

Between its eight available restaurants and observation areas, the government stands to make more than $100,000 if all the venues are reserved.

The Parks Commission also will host free concerts in the area around the falls, where it will hang promotional banners that cost between $15,000 and $40,000 -- the latter for an on-stage mention of their company.

"This will easily be the biggest event that's ever happened in Niagara Falls," said Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont. "We want to have a great experience and maximize our returns."

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, meanwhile, sees profiting from the event in a different light.

The state always has seen the park more as a public amenity than as a center for corporate events, spokesman Dan Keefe said, and it has advertised no such packages for large-scale rental.

"The park was designed for people to see the falls in a natural setting, and that's been a primary mission of the park," he said. "Setting up a VIP area would [limit] the space of the general public."

The state will make money from its roughly 940 parking spaces on Goat Island -- which cost $10 each -- and may still decide to charge for viewing at Terrapin and Prospect points. It will also receive $150,000 from Wallenda to cover safety costs.

And the Maid of the Mist Co. and Delaware North, which runs concessions in the park, may also profit from the busy weekend, Keefe noted.

But most of the profit, he stressed, should flow to local businesses, not the state.

"The priority of the commissioner has been for this event to benefit the businesses within the city," Keefe said. "We do see it as an economic development event, but we want businesses in the city to benefit."

Business owners and city leaders applauded the move, saying that decision will allow local businesses to profit most.

"I'm glad we're not doing [what the Canadians are], that's for sure," said Michael Murphy, who owns a Third Street cafe.

Local elected leaders agree.

"I'd rather see the private sector, quite frankly, make any kind of profit from it, and I think that's going to happen," said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, who added that he has been "furiously lobbying" Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office to make the event free.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster sees the city as a "facilitator" for small businesses. "I would hope as many private businesses as possible would want to capitalize off this event, and I would encourage them to do that," he said.

Like the business leaders, though, he said that in spite of recent tourism-boosting efforts such as the demolition of the Wintergarden and the Niagara County Community College culinary institute, the city lags behind Ontario in tourism infrastructure for a big event such as Wallenda's walk.

"If we feel a little inferior to the Canadians, guess what? We've got to do better," Dyster said. "They made good decisions sooner."

Business owners also noted that compared with the Canadian side, the New York side has far fewer businesses to benefit from the event.

"You could take every business in our downtown area, and it wouldn't even come close to what they have on one street over there," Murphy said.

The city is hoping to help businesses overcome those disadvantages. The City Council last week passed a law allowing vendors from other parts of the city to sell their wares downtown on the weekend of Wallenda's walk. State economic development officials have also hired a company to organize vendors and carnival acts along Old Falls Street.

Canadian hotels, meanwhile, will likely make a greater profit off the event than their American counterparts.

The Canadian side has a skyline with about 10,000 hotel rooms, many with an unobstructed view of the falls. Downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y., has about one-third that number of rooms, few with a view of the falls.

Hotel rooms in Canada last week were selling for $200 to $900, while downtown hotel rooms in the United States went for $170 to $275, according to online booking sites.

Comparing the profit on the American and Canadian sides is like comparing the effect of the event on two very different cities, experts said.

"Niagara Falls [N.Y.] is in the process of destination development. Niagara Falls, Ont., has already achieved destination development. So you're not comparing like with like," said Eddie Friel, a tourism professor at Niagara University.

"Businesses here, I'm sure, will do well," Murphy said, before adding, "But they just have so much more to offer on the Canadian side."