When an idea fails miserably twice in recent memory, why not try it a third time?
That seems to be the logic being applied by Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster and John Percy’s publicly funded Destination Niagara USA in announcing yet another winter festival here, this one called “Jingle Falls USA.”
Previously, largely taxpayer funded failed attempts at drawing tourists to Niagara Falls have included Mayor Dyster’s failed Holiday Market in 2011 and the Festival of Lights, which had its plug pulled in 2001 while the future mayor was serving on the City Council.
In a statement issued over the weekend, Mayor Dyster failed to mention either of the two previous fiascos in once again calling for a taxpayer funded event, hoping to entice mostly Florida or Las Vegas-bound tourists into coming to Niagara Falls and enjoying the 21 degree temperatures while trudging through as much as three feet of snow accumulation.
“Downtown Niagara Falls is changing,” Mayor Dyster said, pointing to the construction of new hotels and other taxpayer subsidized development.
“We can all agree, however, that more activities and events are needed to complement bricks and mortar investment here,” he added.
Although occupancy is trending upward at all times of the year, the mayor claimed, Niagara Falls hotel operators still face what he called “a seasonality gap,” with winter the slowest season.
He said much the same back in 2011, when the city and the state spent a combined $500,000 on the disastrous Holiday Market, which promoter Larry Rivers later claimed lost $1 million.
Mr. Rivers proposed to develop a Holiday Market that would “feature approximately 80 vendors from various parts of the region and country.”
He delivered 35.
He estimated 250,000 would attend the Market. He delivered no more than 75,000 or at best, 30 percent of the number promised in the contract he signed.
Several local media outlets, including the Niagara Falls Reporter, were outraged and some even called for a state investigation.
Of course, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, then in office less than a year, was loath to investigate anything having to do with Paul Dyster, perhaps his strongest ally in Western New York.
The Festival of Lights saga is in many ways even sadder. The event used to draw thousands to downtown in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and to its Convention Center and Winter Garden.
Both the convention center and Winter Garden are long gone, and so is the Festival of Lights.
The magnificent glass and steel Winter Garden was demolished in 2009, while Dr. Dyster served as mayor, and the Convention Center was given to the Seneca Nation of Indians for use as a casino in 2002, when he was a city councilman.
The lavish Festival of Lights was launched in 1981 and was named the number one attraction in North America by the American Bus Association in 1989. In 1991 it was estimated that nearly one million people attended the 10th annual Festival of Lights, setting a new attendance record far surpassing previous years’ crowds.
Lavish fireworks displays and an impressive parade that began at the Aquarium of Niagara and ended at the Convention Center along a route lit by thousands of Christmas Lights and other decorations made attending the 44-day event a holiday tradition for many in the region.
Lackey Plaza, now a parking lot for the Seneca Niagara Casino, was watered down by the city Fire Department so visitors could go ice skating.
But declining attendance, increased costs and fewer and fewer Falls-based corporate sponsors doomed the festival which, unlike the Dyster-conceived Holiday Market and “Jingle Falls USA” schemes, was largely privately funded, and set up with the work of hundreds of volunteers.
Ironically, the Festival of Lights held in Niagara Falls, Ont., is thriving. Of course there are a lot more attractions and fun things to do on Clifton Hill than there are in the jumble of faceless hotels and empty buildings of Mayor Dyster’s crime ridden downtown.
The “Jingle Falls USA” activities are scheduled on three Saturdays: Dec. 2, 9 and 16. There will be the usual scrum of street vendors and other “attractions.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to attract visitors during typically a slower time of year, and also bring local residents down to downtown Niagara Falls USA,” said Julie Gilbert, vice president for marketing at Destination Niagara USA, the official tourism promotion agency.
“We have a responsibility to provide them with more things to do here,” Mayor Dyster said last week of “Jingle Falls USA.”
It is no coincidence that the most successful winter promotion in Niagara Falls history, A Festival of Lights, was staged by private entrepreneurs. At one point, the event boosted hotel occupancy here from 11 percent to 50 percent.
Dyster’s failed Holiday Market and his soon to fail “Jingle Falls USA” have been conceived and executed by hack politicians whose experience in the private sector economy amounts to zilch.
As we’ve seen with the disastrous $38 million train station project here, the mayor’s “If you build it, they will come,” philosophy might well be amended.
“If you build it, using other people’s money, they probably still won’t come anyway, but who cares?” seems more apt.