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Wallenda seeks donations to offset high costs $50,000 needed for variety of expenses

Despite a major television contract and a million-dollar smile, Nik Wallenda says he won't get rich when he walks across Niagara Falls two weeks from today.

In fact, the daredevil says he will lose money on the stunt. So he is now putting out his hand for the public's help. Wallenda is trying to raise $50,000 to cover his travel, marketing and setup costs.

"There have been so many unforeseen costs that have come up lately, and I need your help to raise the money to make this thing happen," Wallenda says in a video on indiegogo.com, where he has raised $1,700.

In return, donors will get an autographed poster of Wallenda (for $10), dinner with the daredevil (for $5,000) or a wire-walking tutorial (for $10,000).

Wallenda says he needs the money because it has been harder to land the corporate sponsors he hoped for, especially after insisting until recently he would not wear a harness for the stunt. And his much-celebrated agreement with ABC-TV to broadcast the event live and in prime time is "generous," his people said, but doesn't cover the cost of the walk.

At the same time, his expenses have mounted. He agreed to pay:

* $150,000 to the state Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation for safety costs on park land.

* $50,000 to Canada's Niagara Parks Commission for safety costs along the Niagara Gorge.

* "Hundreds of thousands," his manager said, for engineering and rigging of the 1,800-foot cable across the gorge.

* An undisclosed amount to the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y., for public safety overtime.

The stuntman's total costs for the event have risen to $1.2 million "at least," his associates said, about $200,000 more than he anticipated.

"At every turn, it's like, 'Oh my God, there's another bill,' " manager Winston Simone said Thursday. "This is incredibly expensive."

He added: "To get a 20-ton wire across the gorge is very expensive. It's helicopters. It's rigging. It's hotel rooms. It's drilling. It's just a ton. It's not an easy thing to do."

To help bridge that gap, Wallenda has taken to the Web, where he offers donation packages to suit the rich and the regular.

Donors giving $5 to his cause get a digital photo of Wallenda making his historic walk.

For $100, Wallenda will thank donors in his upcoming autobiography, and for $1,000, Wallenda will meet and greet donors in a VIP viewing area.

"We want to pay our bills, and this will help us," Simone said.

Wallenda knows his fans want to see him walk across the falls. But in making a plea for their money, he tells them the walk is symbolic of a larger message.

"We need things to encourage people that the impossible is actually possible," he says in the video. "When I make it over there, I hope it's encouraging to anybody else that is watching that no matter what they're facing, whether it be a battle with cancer, or problems in school, or a bout with drugs, they'll make it thorough the other side as long as they focus on that prize."

Wallenda's money issues don't appear to worry the governments he has promised to reimburse.

"He's assured us he'll make the payment for that, and he's a man of his word," said Niagara Parks Commission chairwoman Janice Thomson.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster and city lawyers stressed that the legislation granting Wallenda permission for the wire-walk states he must reimburse the city for traffic control and an increased number of police and fire personnel.

"We feel as though we're on pretty firm ground given the language of the legislation," Dyster said.

He added: "We would assume they would have gone into negotiations with ABC with some estimate of what their costs would be," Dyster said. "I think he's going to be out there to derive whatever sources of income [he can] from this."

Some officials said they warned Wallenda that his walk across the falls might not be as lucrative as he anticipated.

And the daredevil certainly isn't the first person to come across money problems at the falls.

In fact, none of the daredevils who walked across a wire or rode a barrel over Niagara Falls gained the fame and fortune they sought from the stunt.

Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over the falls in a barrel, hoped the stunt would bring her money on a lecture tour across the Western United States. But she died penniless in the Niagara County poorhouse -- without even enough money to pay for her tombstone in Oakwood Cemetery.

Karel Soucek, who survived a barrel ride in 1984, tried to profit from his stunt by replicating it in the Houston Astrodome. But he died when his barrel dropped nearly 200 feet and split open when it hit the edge of a water tank it had aimed for.

Even the Great Blondin, the most famous falls wire-walker, never got rich from the stunt.

"It never worked out," said Niagara Falls historian Paul Gromosiak. "He made a little bit of money, but nothing to retire on."

Wallenda has said money isn't his motivation. But he hopes to cover his costs for this event -- and build his marketing worth for the next one.

"Will he be the first to be rich?" Gromosiak asked. "That's the question."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com