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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Dorothy Gale spoke for us all when she closed her eyes, clicked her ruby red-slippered heels three times and uttered her mantra-like heart's desire: "There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home."

From June 23 through June 26, the city of Niagara Falls will celebrate the Third Annual Niagara Homecoming weekend. Invited back is everyone who used to live here who has moved away over the past 50-odd years. The intent is to roll out the red carpet and showcase the best of what Niagara Falls has to offer -- and hopefully entice a few folks to make the trip home a permanent one.

This year, the timing couldn't be better. According to the good people at Coldwell Banker Real Estate, Niagara Falls is No. 1 on a ranking of most affordable U.S. housing markets. The report cited a survey of average listing prices for four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes in more than 2,300 North American markets. The Cataract City placed at the top with an average price of $63,000.

While that news would normally be greeted negatively -- as it speaks directly to our struggles with declining population, lack of jobs and a nearly unlivable median income -- in this case it can be twisted to the positive.

Niagara Rises Inc., organizer of Homecoming weekend, has long believed in a "think outside the box" mentality as a means to bring on the renaissance of Niagara Falls. That's why one of the selling points to expats this weekend will be sell your house there and buy a similar one here.

The Coldwell Banker study states that the average selling price for a four-bedroom, two-bath house across America is $293,000. That means that someone born in Niagara Falls who wishes to move back home can swap houses in two cities and pocket a cool quarter-million dollars as seed money to ease the transition back home. In the first two years of Homecoming, seven families have done just that. But it's not just housing that people need, jobs factor pretty high on local's version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Last year, the Job and Career Fair Expo component of Homecoming weekend drew an unprecedented 1,700 job seekers. It was a record number for a local job fair. By the end of the day, nearly 700 people had new hope because they had scored a new job.

Organizers of one- and two-day festivals that ask the city for tens of thousands of dollars to finance their for-profit endeavors often cite the economic benefit of "heads in beds." Their pitch is that they help spur the economy by getting people to stay overnight in area hotels, although most local hoteliers say they fail to see a bump from such events. Nonetheless, the theory is at least sound.

Now, if you want to see real economic impact, take a hard look at the ramifications of the Homecoming Job and Career Fair.

Seven hundred jobs were created. If the average job paid $20,000, that means that $14 million was pumped into the local economy this past year as a result of just one day of Homecoming.

Forget "heads in beds," Homecoming puts "rears in careers."

Niagara Rises is pleased to say that this year's weekend is being conducted without one dollar of public funds. The inaugural Main Street Music and Art Festival is receiving a nominal amount from the city, but it is a stand-alone event and has a symbiotic relationship with Niagara Rises.

The point is only worth making in that if our ailing city is to draw itself up by its bootstraps, it has to come with events that work toward self-sufficiency. Goodness knows that the city has many areas that scream out for the limited dollars that are locally allotted, and it's imperative that those dollars are not squandered.

The bottom line is that this weekend is designed to allow all locals a chance to roll out the red carpet and showcase our city to family and friends who have moved away. There is a full slate of events that can be found in the pull-out section of this newspaper.

Some of the highlights are a kick-off picnic to highlight the historic LaSalle section of Niagara Falls, the Job and Career Fair Expo at the Conference Center, an all-classes reunion at the old Niagara Falls High School, the Homecoming Gala to benefit the Niagara County Community College Culinary School and featuring the George Scott Orchestra with vocalist Melissa Kate, a Niagara Power baseball game at Sal Maglie Stadium, the Main Street Music and Art Festival, along with a classic car show and the Dennis George Variety Show, a Goat Island walking tour, the WNYHeroes Tribute Concert featuring Nashville recording artist Ricky Lee, and a Sunday worship service dedicated to the theme of "rebirth."

The phrase "something for everyone" gets overused, but in this case it is hard to argue for a valid reason for anyone to stay glued to the couch this weekend. Our city is full of history and full of potential. Here's hoping that by the time Sunday evening rolls around, you will find yourself exhausted but with a new appreciation of all that our area has to offer.

We have lost nearly 60,000 people since the early 1960s. Most of them may be gone in body, but not in heart or spirit. For those returning this weekend, we say, "Welcome back home." Your old city has missed you and needs your support and help in redefining itself for the next generation of inhabitants.

Our hope is that you will at least entertain the notion of moving home and helping us fight the good fight to save a city that we all cherish and love. If the timing is not right for this year, then maybe next year or the year after that. And if you never again write a Niagara Falls zip code on your outgoing mail, we still need your aid in giving the kids of today the same fond memories of their hometown and upbringing that we know you have carried with you to points all across the great map of America.

For those of you who never left, we say thanks. Thank you for your resolve and determination. Thank you for your never-bending belief in the city of Niagara Falls. Thank you for your contributions to helping our city answer the bell and "come on up for the rising."

This is your weekend too. We hope that all locals will get out to these events and celebrate the many cool things that make this a great place to live. When all is said and done, our greatest resource is people, and when all is stripped away all we have is each other.

It says here that there is no finer person than one blessed to have grown up in Niagara Falls. So whether you've come back from afar or never left, we wish you a great weekend spent reveling in all that makes us, well, us.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 21, 2011