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Free Nick Jonas, Keith Urban concert headlines Falls, Ont., gala

A park in Niagara Falls, Ont., will transform into Canada’s Times Square Wednesday night to ring in the new year.

Meanwhile, city officials on this side of the border squabble over how much the city should contribute to a vastly smaller New Year’s Eve event in its downtown.

While Queen Victoria Park across the Rainbow Bridge saw about 50,000 people usher in 2014, only several thousand people are expected to gather on Old Falls Street when an oversized guitar drops to greet 2015 in New York.

The Canadian side is spending a few million dollars to put on its party. Internationally known musical performers for the free concert include country megastar Keith Urban and Nick Jonas, formerly of the Jonas Brothers.

On the U.S. side of the iconic tourist destination, a concert costing roughly $64,000 and organized by the Hard Rock Cafe will feature a Canadian rock band named the best new group 11 years ago in that country’s version of the Grammy Awards. Niagara Falls, N.Y., which is not new to dysfunction and political infighting, will end up providing $10,000 in funding for the free event.

While the scale of the events are notably different – with the Ontario event to be broadcast on national television in Canada – the cities on both sides of Niagara Falls prove there are different ways of throwing a party on New Year’s Eve.

But both cities share a future tied to what success they can have attracting visitors, and for now, those to the north can point to grander achievements.

While there’s always been some broadcast element to the Ontario event, the biggest growth came when it was televised nationally, said David Adames, senior director of business development for the Niagara Parks Commission, which partners with the city to organize the festivities.

With this year’s lineup, it’s likely all of the city’s approximately 14,000 rooms will have been booked, thanks to the New Year’s event.

“This is now the biggest it’s ever been,” Adames said.

Originally, Mayor Paul A. Dyster had included $27,000 in the Niagara Falls, N.Y., tourism budget as the city’s contribution. It was to cover the estimated costs for each of the bands.

But there wasn’t enough support on the City Council to get that approved earlier this month. The sixth annual event was still going to happen, even without city funds. Last week, a smaller amount was approved by a 3-2 vote.

The money was allocated from the city’s bed tax revenue, which while coming from public coffers, its use would not directly affect city property taxes.

One of the lawmakers who was opposed to the spending, Councilman Glenn A. Choolokian, called it “a slap in the taxpayers’ face” at a time when taxes are going up for residents and commercial property owners.

City officials have just completed a tough budget process for next year during which lawmakers made changes to the budget that put it out of balance by $280,000.

The opposition among some lawmakers was met with concern by the city’s Tourism Advisory Board, a volunteer panel whose mission is to advise the Council on tourism matters.

Chairwoman Lisa A. Vitello said the simple fact is that people want to be where something fun is happening, and if you have nothing for people to do, they won’t come back.

“We don’t seem to see the value in funding events of that nature, and I can’t understand why,” Vitello said. “It fills the hotel rooms, it brings in tax revenue, it’s a great way to showcase your city. A well-planned event like that could keep people coming back for years, but for some reason our city doesn’t seem to see the value in it.”

Critics of the spending, including Choolokian, have decried any city contribution as an unneeded subsidy to a major international corporation.

But the event itself is not a real money-maker for the Hard Rock, the mayor contends. Hard Rock officials declined to discuss any financial details.

The Hard Rock Cafe and the city have a relationship that’s mutually beneficial, Dyster said, as the city works to redevelop its downtown and draw visitors by associating with a globally known brand. At the same time, the international chain helps to build the Niagara Falls brand by putting on the event, which costs them money to do, he said.

“It’s a win for both of us to have that association,” Dyster said.

With the city ponying up less than expected, additional funds from the Hard Rock Cafe and from other sponsors were used to cover the gap, though Dyster declined to elaborate on any specific financial figures, citing a non-disclosure agreement the city signed as part of the process to develop the event.

According to the mayor, what the city’s trying to do as part of its redevelopment strategy is undertake an events-based effort necessary to prove what’s possible downtown, also needed because there just aren’t enough “brick and mortar” establishments up and running to provide a steady stream of visitors.

Dyster wants the city to make a good impression on people who come to its downtown events, so they might think about coming back again, or maybe even living here.

The mayor believes the city’s strategy, helped by the state, has led to millions in planned investments downtown, including by Uniland Development, Delaware North, the Hamister Group and the Merani Group. He said he hopes that in five years or so there will be a much larger number of hotels, restaurants and other amenities making money in the city so the number of potential sponsors for an event grows and the city can “fade back into the shadows to let others step into the limelight.”

But at this point, in order to make sure the strategy continues, government has to lead the charge, Dyster said.

“That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t try to reduce our role over time,” said the mayor, who noted that only a couple of entities are regularly hit up for sponsorship money. He said the timing’s “just not good” for many business owners as many are in the midst of heavy investment in existing or new ventures.

And by understanding what’s happening as part of an ongoing strategy, the funding can be thought of as an investment rather than an expense, Dyster said.

Over in Canada, the cost to put on their New Year’s event, which has been going on for 25 years, is about $3 million, $2 million of which is used for marketing.

The City of Niagara Falls, Ont., is receiving funding from a variety of agencies, including Ontario Lottery and Gaming, Entertainment Tonight Canada, the Niagara Parks Commission, Fallsview Casino and business groups. Local businesses account for about $600,000 of the funding. The city also received $234,500 in grant funding, including $184,500 from a provincial tourism and culture program, as well as $50,000 from another grant.

The city itself will contribute $40,000 in cash, as well as various in-kind services, Adames said.

Last year’s event was viewed in Canada by about 3.4 million people at its peak, according to the Niagara Falls (Ont.) Review.

Back in the States, there will be family-oriented activities from 6 to 10 p.m. in the Conference & Event Center Niagara Falls. The free outdoor concert, featuring Theory of a Deadman, Dirty Smile and MENEW, begins at 8 p.m. The guitar drop will happen at midnight on the Giacomo, 222 First St.

Dyster said there is real economic competition in the cross-border relationship, even though the sides often work together. He also said he believes the Falls has been able to differentiate its New Year’s Eve events from those in Buffalo, so the two don’t detract from each other.

The mayor said he also doesn’t want people to think of downtown Niagara Falls “as a permanent second-place finisher” to Buffalo because of all the redevelopment that’s taking shape there now.

“I want them to think about (Niagara Falls) as its own center of activity,” Dyster said. “We have to show that we’re serious.”