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Taste of Tonawandas kicks off a bounty of shared summer events in Gateway Harbor Park

A bridge, a canal, even a county line separate North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda, but the two cities share the Gateway Harbor and are determined to share the fun in a summer of free music, food and dance, that are just a few steps over the bridge, no matter which side you are coming from.

Tonawandas Gateway Harbor Inc. has been promoting regional tourism for over two decades and boasts one of the longest-running free concert venues in the area.

The group will kick off its summer season from noon to 7 p.m. next Sunday with Taste of the Tonawandas, featuring local restaurants and tasting stations on both sides of Gateway Harbor along the Erie Canal venue. Tickets are 10 for $5

Linda Foels has been president of the Tonawandas Gateway Harbor Inc. since 1994 and said the cities’ offerings of free concerts, tastings and more recently, food trucks, is one of the area’s best kept secrets – but not for long.

Foels said they offered the first Taste of Tonawandas 25 years ago, but it ended after urban renewal put an end to a number of businesses. The new Taste has been back for eight years and is booming. This summer’s Taste of the Tonawandas has more than doubled since last year with about 27 local restaurants expected next Sunday.

In addition there will be food trucks, craft beers, and children’s entertainment. Music will be provided by NY2LA and Two Left Boots.

The food theme will continue at Gateway Food Truck Thursdays beginning June 9 from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Approximately nine trucks have signed up to attend. Foels said that unlike last year, the trucks will only park on Young Street in the City of Tonawanda, rather than spread out on both sides – until the venue grows a little larger. Food trucks continue through August, with the exception of Canal Fest week, July 17-24.

She said last year they only averaged a few food trucks a week. This year there are already six to nine signed up with more contacting her. They also plan to have acoustic music and children’s activities.

Free concerts begin June 15 and continue every Wednesday through Aug. 25, with the exception of Canal Fest week, Foels said there are no national acts, but there are tribute bands and many well-known local musicians. The intro acts start at 6 p.m. in Gateway Harbor Park in North Tonawanda and the headliner starts at 8 p.m. No coolers or pets are allowed in the park on Wednesday nights.

“There are no tickets, no lines and the beautiful Erie Canal in the background,” she said.

A few brand-new events will be offered this summer as well.

On June 11 at 5:30 p.m. there will be an old-fashioned street dance – a reunion to remember the days of the Peppermint Stick Club in Tonawanda. The party will feature a special appearance by Big Wheelie and 1950s recording artist Richie Derwald Sr., “Dixie Dee,” DJ Hank Nevins and Kathy Lynn & the Playboys.

There also will be a Pizza Fest at 6 p.m. on Aug. 31 in North Tonawanda’s Gateway Harbor Park, featuring pizza served up by area restaurants.

She said one of the group’s main goals in offering these free events is to get people to come to the area to discover their merchants and come back and shop.

“Our goals is to promote the Tonawandas and bring the people downtown,” said Foels. She called the arrangement of two cities sharing resources unusual, but very collaborative.

“It’s two cities, two counties, two banks on the Erie Canal, two sets of laws. Erie County has their rules and Niagara County has their rules, but we have people interested in the entire area, not just the City of Tonawanda or North Tonawanda,” Foels said.

She said the rivalry dates back 100 years, especially between the high school football teams, but they are both tight-knit communities and Gateway Harbor is something they have in common.

Foels had been the director of parks and recreation for the City of Tonawanda for 34 years. She has been retired for four years. She said both city mayors serve on their board.

“Maybe what’s unique is that we can actually get two cities to work together – and they do. It works,” she said.