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Mayor Paul Dyster has secured for the Hard Rock Cafe -- a billion-dollar corporation owned by the Seminole Nation of Indians -- almost $500,000 in public money, most of it casino funds, to put on a series of "free" outdoor concerts.

Last year alone, Dyster sought and the council approved $230,000 for Hard Rock to stage six summer concerts and one on New Year's Eve.

It's been argued that these concerts are a boon to the community because they bring business downtown.

Dyster said that, since many people come to see the concerts staged next to the state park, naturally they will park in the nearby city-owned parking ramp. This adds revenue to the general fund, he said.

The concerts cost the city as much as $50,000 each.

By agreement, Hard Rock uses our money to pay the performer, set up the stage, and to pay for labor, general production, a generator and a tent for the mayor and other VIP guests.

Most of the performers Hard Rock books normally command between $10,000 and $15,000 per performance. It is said the mayor is allowed to help select the acts.

The New Year's Eve concert featured '90s group Smash Mouth, who were paid, according to one city official involved in the production, $15,000 for their performance.

That left Hard Rock with $35,000 to put on the show, which included an oversized guitar dropping about 40 feet from a column at midnight.

Hard Rock has the exclusive right to sell souvenirs, food, beer, and VIP tickets with limited seating at $75 each.

Most of the concertgoers stand on the brick-paved street, closed for these events, and listen for free.

The mayor said the concert not only brings parking revenue, but downtown businesses get an influx of business. According to him, many people purchase goods and stay overnight in hotels after they come to see the likes of Smash Mouth, Soul Asylum, The English Beat, Lou Gramm, Tonic, Donna the Buffalo, Sugar Ray, or the Buffalo Philharmonic performing the music of Pink Floyd.

Most of the concerts we witnessed have not been well attended -- with about 1,000 being the average number of listeners hanging around for more than one or two songs at these events.

Few outside the VIP section seem to stay for the entire show. That may be because it's uncomfortable to stand for long periods of time and listen to music.

The mayor and Hard Rock representatives generally claim much higher attendance figures than our correspondents who attend these events.

We noticed this first when the mayor said that the Sugar Ray concert in July 2009 attracted 5,000.

By our estimate -- and we took pictures throughout the night -- a maximum of 900 people were standing anywhere near the stage during the concert at any one time.

Generally, the crowd ranged from 500 to 600, as people kept coming and going.

How did the mayor come up with the 5,000 figure?

The Sugar Ray concert was held on Saturday night, 300 feet from the Niagara Falls State Park, at the height of the tourist season.

During the course of the concert, thousands were walking to the state park, right past the stage where Sugar Ray performed. Some people stopped and listened for a minute, before moving on to their destination: Niagara Falls.

By counting every person who glanced at the concert stage, whether they stayed for one song or one second, it may have added up to 5,000.

But to say 5,000 attended the Sugar Ray concert would be like saying that, had a street musician been performing with his tip jar, 5,000 attended his concert.

The difference is, the street singer might get $200 in tips. The city of Niagara Falls paid Hard Rock $40,000 to put Sugar Ray on stage.

The mayor, however, was perched happily in the VIP section under the tent. He seemed delighted when, during the concert, Sugar Ray's lead singer Mark McGrath announced to the tiny crowd, "Hey, it's great to be in Niagara Falls. Where else can you go where the mayor of the city comes backstage and does shots with you?"

Happily, the mayor often goes on stage to read proclamations and backstage to hobnob with his favorite stars.

Since most of the concerts are held on Saturday nights in July and August, it is hard to determine whether these concerts are an economic generator for local businesses.

Usually all of the 2,900 hotel rooms in the city -- with or without concerts -- are full every Saturday night in July and August. There would be no easy way to prove that people filled these rooms because they came to see Lou Gramm and not Niagara Falls.

As to parking, there was always a boost at the city's Rainbow ramp every Saturday in summer -- long before the public paid Hard Rock to hold outdoor concerts.

If Hard Rock concerts actually brought people downtown, we might, however, see a boost in parking for the New Year's Eve concert. Normally there are few downtown businesses open in winter. There were no major events. There would be little paid parking that night.

We could determine, from the New Year's Eve Smash Mouth concert, what direct benefit, from paid parking at least, came from spending $50,000 to put on the concert.

We made a Freedom of Information request for City Hall records for parking revenue for Dec. 31, 2010.

The mayor and Hard Rock estimated attendance for the Smash Mouth concert at 12,000 people.

A correspondent for the Reporter estimated the attendance was at best 2,500.

If 12,000 people came, then if we assume an average four people per car, 3,000 cars parked in the downtown area.

Many of these would park in the Rainbow ramp, since there are only 750 maximum total parking spaces not owned by the city near the concert area.

The Rainbow ramp was charging $5 that night.

If its 1,882 spaces were filled, the ramp would haul in $9,000.

The city's surface parking lots would collect many of the remaining cars, which means the city might have raked in about $11,000 total in parking.

According to Freedom of Information request responses received from the city of Niagara Falls, the sum total revenue for the Rainbow ramp for Dec. 31, 2010, was $1,100. In other words, 225 cars parked there.

This shows that our correspondent's numbers were likely more accurate than the mayor's. There weren't 12,000 people, there were probably 2,500 or less.

It also shows that the benefits of these concerts have been based on anecdotal information, if not self-serving exaggeration.

According to the contract between Hard Rock and the city, Hard Rock is required to provide a report on how they spend the public's money.

When the Reporter submitted a FOIL request, asking for all documentation regarding the Hard Rock concert series, we did not receive any reports -- presumably because, after three years of concerts, Hard Rock never filed one.

The average person probably wouldn't put up $50,000 for a concert featuring Smash Mouth, Soul Asylum or Donna the Buffalo.

The average person probably wouldn't ask his neighbors to do so with public money.

If Hard Rock wants to put on a concert series, they should use their own money.

No one but a fool, parting easily with his money, would pay $50,000 to put on concerts such as the ones we've been paying for with so little proof of profit.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 1, 2011