It was on June 15, 2012 that more than 13 million viewers from around the world and tens of thousands more on site on both sides of the river watched daredevil Nik Wallenda make his historic wire walk across Niagara Falls.
"It was exciting to know that I was a part of history," Wallenda said shortly after becoming the first person to cross the mighty falls on a high wire. It was pretty exciting for all of us, too.
Wallenda continues to dazzle onlookers with his death-defying stunts, including last summer at Darien Lake and the Hamburg Fair, and also between skyscrapers in Chicago and a portion of the Grand Canyon. But while the aerialist and his family wanted to open a permanent family entertainment site in Niagara Falls, that dream has not become a reality.
Former State Sen. George Maziarz, who had a lot to do with clearing the bureaucratic red tape on both sides of the border for Wallenda to finally making his historic walk, tried to sell local leaders (city and state) about creating a home for the Wallenda family at 310 Rainbow Blvd., the site of the looming Hamister hotel project, but the pitch generated little response.
By now all of us know what happened next.
After months of political infighting and open confrontation, the state and Mayor Paul Dyster were able to win approval for putting what was billed as a grand hotel at 310 Rainbow Blvd. and pretty much gift the site to Buffalo developer Mark Hamister for $100,000. The potentially exciting Wallenda entertainment center that would appeal to families on vacation and locals, too, gave way to a business hotel for a politically connected developer.
The whole episode struck a chord with me last week when I read that only three people showed up to speak at a public hearing conducted by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency to consider $4.2 million in tax breaks for the hotel on top of the almost free land and nearly $3 million coming from the state to help poor Hamister make his dream come true.
One of the speakers at the IDA hearing was Dyster, and it is pretty much accepted that the IDA will rubber stamp the Hamister deal shortly and Wallenda will be left to whistling in the Niagara Falls wind, much like he did on that night of his historic crossing.
In hindsight, many would probably believe that Maziarz had the right idea about putting a Wallenda family center downtown, nearly at the foot of the falls, to provide spectacular shows for visitors of all ages, something sorely lacking downtown. After visiting the mighty falls, then what? Many visitors stop and go and a Wallenda family center would have been a perfect complement to their experience, maybe keeping them here another day or two. Instead, we had three people show up at the IDA hearing to say little about the big tax breaks for a business hotel with the equivalent of 21 full time jobs (translated, that means six). No Wallenda, no problem, I guess.
Nik Wallenda will go on to soar in different venues, having fulfilled part of his Niagara Falls dream but missing out on setting up the home venue he wanted for a city that he came to love during the time he was here in 2012 getting ready for the big event. Personable and charming, Wallenda was a huge hit. But he's gone.
At some point, I guess, Hamister will start building his hotel. It won't quite be like it was watching Nik train at the casino before his big walk which drew visitors from near and far. But that's what Niagara Falls is getting and in hindsight it would seem that it would have been a lot more exciting to anticipate a Wallenda center than a business hotel that has been scaled back dramatically from the initial hype.
Nik Wallenda put Niagara Falls on the map in 2012 with more than 13 million viewers from around the world watching events unfold before the historic crossing. The locals were abuzz with the details of what was going to happen right before their eyes. That buzz has been silenced and only three people even bothered to show up to hear about the tax breaks for the Buffalo developer for a hotel that the city may not really need. It certainly could have used a family entertainment center, Wallenda style.
Well, so be it. See you somewhere else, Nik. We won't forget your time here and the excitement you generated. Now bring on that hotel. I can't wait.