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Main Street in a whole new light Falls executive proposes a holiday event that would involve the entire community

Since A Festival of Lights went dark 12 years ago, proposals to draw winter tourists to Niagara Falls have come -- and gone.

Winterfest Niagara ran during the early 2000s. The United Way lights up Hyde Park each year. Most recently, the Niagara Holiday Market brought visitors to Old Falls Street.

But with the future of the holiday market uncertain -- it came under heavy criticism from the City Council -- an executive at the Fashion Outlets has come forward with the latest proposal: a light festival, retail area and children's game center along Main Street.

"This is something that's going to revolutionize our tourism season -- because it's going to extend it," Carmen Toromino told the City Council last week. "We're not going to go anywhere until we make it a year-round term."

While some are quick to point out the financial and logistical challenges of holding a festival in the faded commercial strip, where vacant buildings outnumber businesses, Toromino said he's gotten only encouragement from city residents.

"We're trying to get the whole community involved," said Toromino, business manager of the outlet mall. "I've heard a lot of requests from people, saying, 'How can I help?' I haven't heard one negative response from anybody."

Toromino said United Way lighting displays will be set up along Main Street from Linwood to Niagara avenues on the weekends from Nov. 30 to Dec. 30 and a children's entertainment area will feature famous sports personalities and sports games like a football toss and hockey shoot.

That space will be converted into adult entertainment at night, and carriage rides, a parade, a princess contest, classic movie showings and even weddings will take place throughout the festival, Toromino said.

Toromino is calling the event the "rebirth" of A Festival of Lights, but he is quick to point out that his festival will be a smaller event.

"It's more interactive, more family-oriented [than A Festival of Lights]," Toromino said. "We're trying to have a family come down and have a good time for 20 bucks."

The key to making it happen -- and some would say the greatest challenge -- is raising $60,000 to $80,000 to fund the festival. Unlike Mark Rivers, the Idaho developer who put on the holiday market last year on Old Falls Street, Toromino isn't asking for any public money.

That sits well with City Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, a staunch critic of Rivers and the holiday market.

"Anything that doesn't cost the taxpayers money and utilizes the local workforce and businesses is a good thing," Fruscione said.

Toromino said he plans to raise the money by selling Christmas tree ornaments for $9.95 each and by holding a gala to honor the handful of developers who have taken a chance and built in an area of the city many wouldn't dare to touch.

He believes the gala, which would include live music, a dinner and auction, could help raise most of the funds if State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, can persuade Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to attend.

Half of the money raised for the event will cover expenses, Toromino said, while 20 percent will fund future festivals. The city will receive up to 15 percent of the money while charities will get another 15 percent.

Toromino, who served as marketing director for the Niagara Thunder Bike Rally & Expo, made it clear he doesn't want to be compared to Rivers or his European-style market, which ran from Thanksgiving to New Year's along Old Falls Street.

"I want no comparison to the [Niagara] Holiday Market," he said. "It's a completely different venue. We're not interested in bringing in anything national. It's the whole community's project, not mine."

City officials, some who consider the holiday market to be a retail success that drew thousands from across the area downtown, say some type of event will still take place along Old Falls Street.

"I don't think it absolves us of our responsibility of trying to do something, winter events and programming, in the downtown area," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "I feel pretty confident even if this goes forward there's going to be something happening in the downtown area as well."

Dyster said Niagara County Community College has expressed interest in putting on a large Santa's Workshop exhibit next year, and the culinary school will be open full time by Christmas.

Fruscione also said Old Falls Street "will not be neglected."

Dyster, while noting the lack of specifics on how Toromino would raise the funds, said vacant storefronts along Main Street could possibly be opened temporarily for retailers at the festival.

"I think anything you can do to justify bricks and mortar retail on Main Street, that's the way you need to go," the mayor said.

Community leaders hope a festival will bring foot traffic to the long-forgotten district, build on the momentum from the Rapids Theatre and other businesses and encourage investors to build there.

"The challenges [we face] are challenges that all Main Streets across the United States share in common," said Frank Brzezinski, a Main Street activist. "The malls have taken away retail traffic. We've been struggling because Main Street has been kicked around for many years.

"But we've got the bones of some great buildings, we've got the new police station, with 200-plus people who are working in the building every day. It's nice to give the business owners some reason to revitalize."

Toromino added: "They need the most help. I was there in the heyday as a kid. There's no reason it can't be that way again. I know we lost corporations, a lot of the factories. But they do it across the bridge [in Canada] without factories. There's no reason we can't."

Others, though, cautioned that putting on a well-run festival involves a number of challenges, from fundraising to logistics to staffing. They point out that many ideas have begun in the Falls before -- and fizzled out after a few years.

But they believe it could be done if Toromino involves the right people and raises the funds.

"It's going to be hard," said Rick Crogan, president of the Main Street Business and Professional Association. "If he's going to take on that big of a festival, it's gonna take a lot of people. The community has to finally stand up and help support it. They've got to be active in it."

Crogan said there is "without a doubt" interest in a more community-oriented festival put on by locals.

"After last year's holiday market, there's definitely some interest for the local market to step up and do the right thing, to start building their own city," he said. "We gave away a lot of money last year and we want to see a better return. And if you get the right people involved in it, you might see that."