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Twin cities gear up for annual Canal Fest of the Tonawandas

On both sides of the Erie Canal at Gateway Harbor, both North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda are expecting the crowds to pour in for the 33rd annual Canal Fest, July 19 through 26.

Lawrence M. Denef, president of Canal Fest Inc., said in an average year 200,000 people visit during the eight-day event. He said it is also a major fundraiser for many community groups, civic organizations, nonprofits and churches in the area.

The events, food and music spread across two square miles on both sides of the canal, from Main and Broad streets in the City of Tonawanda to Webster and Sweeney streets in North Tonawanda. Denef said there is so much interest from groups that want to be part of the annual event that it could be as big at the Erie County Fair – if it only had the room.

“There are a lot of detractors who don’t see any use for the Canal Fest or think it is a nuisance, but if they really understood what it means to organizations in their own cities, they might change what they think,” said Denef, who has chaired the event for the past 15 years and has been involved in it for 21 years.

“Even after all this time, there are people in the city who don’t know what Canal Fest is and who runs it,” Denef said.

He said it is not about big money or profits.

“It costs nothing to attend. There’s the parade, car shows, craft shows and a lot of music all week on both sides of the canal. The only time it would cost you money is if you want to eat or if you wanted to ride the rides,” he said.

The Canal Fest of the Tonawanda’s Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that took over the event from the Chamber of Commerce of the Tonawandas 20 years ago. Denef is also vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce and on the board of the Riviera Theatre.

“There’s certain things that make a city a city, and civic nonprofit organizations are one of those things that make a city successful,” he said. “Everybody that works on Canal Fest does it for the love of their community.”

He added, “We bring a lot of people to the cities for those eight days and the businesses can hopefully take advantage of it. This is the prime time for them to advertise their businesses so people can come back.”

Planning goes on all year, but the only thing organizers can’t plan for is the weather.

“We are hoping for moderate weather, not too hot,” he said. “But we take what we get.

New this year will be a visit from the Sand Masters, world-class artists Rusty Croft and Kirk Rademaker, who have appeared on the Travel Channel for their masterpieces built out of sand. Their work creating a one-of-a-kind Canal Fest-related sculpture will be featured on Main Street in the City of Tonawanda for one day only, July 22. The artists’ visit is sponsored by Visit Erie, Pa.

The annual parade, one of the largest parades in Western New York, will be on July 21 starting at 6:30 p.m. in the City of Tonawanda and concluding in North Tonawanda. The theme this year will be pirates.

The Twin Cities Car Cruise is starting to outstrip the parade in attendance, Denef said. It will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. on July 22. On July 24, there will be a Bike Cruise. An antique fire truck muster will be held on opening day, July 19.

The last Saturday and Sunday, July 25 and 26, there will be a two-day craft show stretching from Main and Broad streets in Tonawanda to Webster and Sweeney streets in North Tonawanda.

The Tim Frank Memorial four-Mile Run sets off at 7 p.m. July 23, registration begins at 4 p.m. This year the run will be moved from Sunday to Thursday evening to encourage increased attendance.

Another fun event, the Diaper Derby, will be back at 6 p.m. July 23 at the corner of Main and Tremont streets in North Tonawanda. Denef said last year 72 babies competed in the derby.

There also will be fireworks at the closing of the festival at dusk on July 26 from the Renaissance Bridge.

Denef noted there’s a lot more going on in between the big events, including live music every day with the main stage at Gateway Harbor on Sweeney Street in North Tonawanda and other venues between the two cities.

Opening ceremonies begin at noon on July 19 on the Renaissance Bridge. Events continue in both cities from noon to 11 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on July 25 and 26.

A full list of events, music and locations is available at