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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Recently, Niagara Rises held its third annual Niagara Homecoming weekend. Over 20,000 people took part in the festivities. It went by in a blur, but here are some of the highlights at what has become the signature event for the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y.

On Sunday afternoon, country music recording artist Ricky Lee put on a free concert on Old Falls Street. Ricky and his great backing band, the Mustangs, started out in fifth gear and managed to upshift from there as they tore through three sets of high-energy material that included covers of Top 10 hits and their own well-written songs.

Lee was there with "Made in America" store owner Mark Andol. Mark's store in Elma, N.Y., only sells products that are 100 percent made in the USA. Andol promotes Lee's "Made in America" tour and he has plans to expand his shops from coast to coast.

The following day, Diane Sawyer of ABC News did a great piece on Andol and the impact his vision of supporting American workers is having, as his concept has taken hold and begun to grow.

A great thing happened at that concert, something that I am really proud of having had even the smallest part in making happen. Mary Ann Hess from Honeymoon Sweets and artist Paul Hanover were on hand and presented some of their work to Lee and Andol.

Hess makes the most amazing chocolate engravings and picture frames -- all edible. Hanover paints Niagara Falls like no one else ever has, and his work is critically acclaimed in many corners of the art world.

Lee was truly touched by Hanover's gift of one of his paintings of the falls, and Andol was amazed by Hess' ability to create a photograph that could be eaten, frame and all. While event organizer Georgia Brannan was making announcements on the microphone, Andol pulled Hess and Hanover aside and right there on the stage told them he wanted to have their products sold in his store.

When he goes national, they'll go, too. It couldn't have happened to two nicer, more industrious and talented people -- both of whom are great ambassadors for the city of Niagara Falls. I couldn't have painted a sweeter ending to the weekend if I had Rembrandt's hands.

Yours truly had a first for the Cataract City during Homecoming Weekend. I became the first person in the long annals of professional baseball in Niagara Falls to throw the first pitch at a game while wearing a tuxedo.

The owner of the Niagara Falls Power, Cal Kern, graciously offered me the opportunity to do my best Luis Tiant impersonation at his team's game against the Alleghany County Nitros on Saturday, June 25.

I explained to Kern that I would be wearing a tuxedo, as I was emcee at the big Homecoming Gala at the conference center happening at the same time as the game. Kern said that was no problem and even moved up the timing of the ceremonial pitch 15 minutes to accommodate my schedule.

I arrived early, with my oldest son, Zach, and took some warm-up pitches. I did so mainly because I had made the mistake of letting Tom Proctor of the Thomas Loop Internet radio show and Chris Stoianoff of StenzTV know that I would be on the mound. Both turned up with cameras and video recorders in tow to enshrine my moment of glory for everlasting posterity.

Trying to block out images of Howard Stern producer Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate and his ill-fated attempt at a Mets game that landed somewhere in the east Bronx from my mind, I steadied myself on the mound at Sal Maglie stadium and aimed for the catcher's glove.

It would have been a ball just outside the plate, but it made it to the catcher without tasting dirt, and I trotted off feeling pretty good about the effort. You can watch me in all my glory on YouTube, as Proctor had it up before I even made it back to the gala.

Oh, and the Power rallied for a ninth-inning come-from-behind 10-7 win, so I just might be the good-luck charm they've been seeking. If you haven't seen a Power game yet, what are you waiting for? It's terrific baseball, and the top seat in the stadium goes for $4 -- get there before the warm weather leaves us for another year.

The job fair, put together by the inexhaustible Andrea Todero and her assistant Elizabeth Lavis, with a big assist from Brannan, was another homerun for the city of Niagara Falls. Nearly 100 employers saw over 1,000 job seekers, and over 400 people walked away with new jobs.

That alone will pump millions of dollars into the local economy over the next year, and that is what Niagara Rises is all about.

Three very deserving people were feted at the gala. Eddie Gadawski was honored for the longevity and quality of his great eponymous eatery; Marge Gillies was recognized for the tremendous volunteer work she does for so many organizations in Niagara Falls; and Don Glynn was toasted as the media person of the year for the Cataract City. Here's a tip of the hat to these three gems of Rainbow County. For me, it was a great honor to have my picture taken with Mr. Glynn -- who, along with fellow Gazette columnist Sean Kirst, first made me aspire to the profession when I was a teenager in the early 1980s.

Finally, it should be noted that this year's Homecoming was pulled off without one nickel of public funds. I decided to personally reimburse the organization any monies that it was short in lieu of the $6,000 supplied by the city in the first two years of the event.

I did so for two reasons. One was my belief that organizations should work toward self-sufficiency, and the second was a 3 p.m. City Council meeting I attended.

At that meeting, it was announced that the city was giving $30,000 to a for-profit blues festival, and it was also revealed that the city was spending $14,000 for a plaque to commemorate the 100-year water treaty between Canada and the United States.

These revelations came after repeated phone calls had gone unanswered as to what we might expect for funding this year. Also, a year-old request to at least have the city erect some banners declaring the Homecoming weekend fell on deaf ears.

Here are the stats: 20,000-plus attendees, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent at local businesses, hundreds of new jobs created, thousands of dollars generated to support the Niagara County Community College Culinary School scholarship program, countless nights at area hotels and motels booked, tens of thousands of dollars of in-kind exposure on local TV and radio, and in local newspapers -- all benefiting the city of Niagara Falls.

Zero dollars of support from the city.

Only in Niagara Falls!

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 12, 2011