PETER CONRADI and JOHN ROBBINS/Bullet News
Daredevil Nik Wallenda wants to establish a permanent theatre in Niagara Falls where he and members of his family can put on tightrope or aerial shows and other forms of circus entertainment.
“I’ve always said I want to make Niagara Falls my second home,” the Florida-based Wallenda told Bullet News on Monday. “Why wouldn’t I? Look at the crowds that come through Niagara Falls. I wouldn’t be a very good businessman if I didn’t consider something like that.”
Wallenda, 32, is part of the famed circus family the Flying Wallendas.
“It’s always been a big dream to have a Wallenda family show that runs at least all summer. Why not have a Nik Wallenda theatre with a show three-six months of the year? This has been the ultimate goal all along. This is definitely not a one-off thing.”
Wallenda, who has a meeting with the Niagara Parks Commission on Thursday to discuss his proposal to walk on a high wire across the Niagara Gorge close to the Horseshoe Falls, said he and investors have scouted some locations for a facility.
“We haven’t got too far along with that part, but we have some big sponsors who want to be a part of all of this. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the big European tents they have now, but those things are amazing. We own some of those already with a partner that I work with, so we could definitely do a temporary facility until we have something permanent.”
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said he and Wallenda have discussed the idea a few times in the past.
“I think it would be terrific for the area,” Diodati said. “When you take two powerful brands like Niagara Falls and the Wallendas and put them together, great things can happen.
“We’re trying to bring Americans back to Niagara Falls. Having that Wallenda name here would be the kind of draw we need, the kind of name recognition the Americans would be familiar with – it’s like Coca-Cola, apple pie and Twinkies.”
Before moving into full-gear on the theatre concept, though, Wallenda said he needs to know he’ll be able to set the stage for a regular presence through a global spectacle, like the attempted walk over the Niagara River between the United States and Canada.
Wallenda’s request to do that was turned down by the NPC board last fall, but a second meeting was arranged following a recent meeting with Ontario Tourism Minister Michael Chan. NPC chairwoman Janice Thomson said Monday the agency’s general manager Fay Booker, police chief Doug Kane, and the director of engineering will be in attendance to review and ask questions about Wallenda’s proposal.
Wallenda made a 12-minute presentation to the board last year, but none of the commissioners asked any questions.
“Nik is of the opinion there’s some information we didn’t hear (last time),” Thomson told Bullet News. Following the meeting with staff, a report will be prepared for the benefit of commissioners and likely presented to members in time for their next meeting on Feb. 15, Thomson said.
Wallenda said there are many points he hopes to make on Thursday since so much was left unsaid during his previous appearance before the Parks Commission.
“I don’t really feel like they were able to get an understanding of what this is all about and what I have in mind, but I’m feeling very positive and happy to have this second chance.
“I’ve had a couple of very good conversations (with Janice Thomson) and I feel like they are going into this with an open mind. It’s all very good as far as I am concerned. I don’t expect (Thursday) to be as much as a presentation as a question and answer thing, although I will certainly be more than prepared to do it any way they want.”
Wallenda is hopeful that the Niagara Parks Commission is demonstrating a change of heart about high-wire walking because last week Thomson and Booker voted in favour of having the Niagara Tourism Partnership consider spending $180,000 to help cover the cost of bringing aerialist Jay Cochrane back to Niagara Falls this year for a summer of performances, walking a cable stretched between the Hilton hotel and the Skylon Tower.
“I think that if anything this shines a light on the fact that Janice (Thomson) and Fay (Booker) are changing their minds on everything they thought about tightrope walking,” said Wallenda. “It seems like they have had a change of heart, which is very positive for me. That’s a great thing. If they are willing to support tightrope walking in Niagara Falls, it can’t be anything but great for me.”
Wallenda’s discussions with the Niagara Parks Commission and members of the Ontario government have also attracted the attention of U.S. politicians and officials.
The New York State Parks department has now come out against Wallenda’s so-called Plan B of walking across the American falls if he cannot secure permission from the Canadians for an international show.
In a statement, Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said the department won’t support the high-wire act limited only to the American side of the falls or other alternatives to his planned international tightrope walk.
In September, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved legislation authorizing the state parks department to allow Wallenda special permission to make the 1,800-foot walk beginning on the New York side of the falls. Canadian approval was needed for the walk’s end near the Table Rock visitor centre.
“A walk limited to the American Falls is not what New York approved or envisioned in legislation authorizing Nik Wallenda to traverse the Niagara River Gorge from the United States to Canada,” Harvey’s statement said. “The costs to New York State of managing a walk only across the American Falls would exceed $1 million in direct state expenses, while, because of the physical topography of Niagara Falls and crowd safety concerns, the number of people who could watch such a walk would be extremely limited.
“As a result, despite the costs to New York State, the vast majority of people on the U.S. side would be turned away from the park and never see the walk.”
New York State Sen. George Maziarz told Bullet News he was surprised about the timing of the Parks announcement. He said his interpretation is that New York Parks would want to go back and take a closer look at plans for a walk over the American falls, not that it is issuing an outright condemnation of the proposal. But Maziarz is still hopeful that Ontario will give Wallenda the OK.
“I’m hearing that the meeting (with Chan) went very well,” he said. “I think it’s a positive that (the Niagara Parks Commission) is going to listen to (Wallenda) again. I can tell you that on this side of the border there is universal support for what he wants to do. We’re all hoping this can happen between the two countries.”
Chan himself is said to be in favour of allowing Wallenda to make the two-country walk. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is believed to be of a similar opinion. Both are being careful not to be seen to be openly interfering with the Niagara Parks Commission, though, an arms-length steward of the land around the falls.
Wallenda has provided an economic impact prediction of 120,000 people watching the attempted crossing live and spending an estimated $20.5 million. That number, Wallenda said, would balloon to $122 million of ‘legacy spending’ after five years. This includes money generated by repeat visitors or first-time visitors to Niagara Falls, who would come after viewing the show live, or on news reports or through special programs.
There’s already a confirmed deal with the Discovery Network that would allow the spectacle to be viewed live by more than 400 million people around the world, and at least another 60 million would see it through news broadcasts or entertainment shows.
Thomson has said she does not feel any pressure to allow Wallenda to make the walk, despite the fact that so many seem to want this to happen. She said there is also a significant contingent urging the Parks Commission to stick by its original verdict.
“We’re committed to doing the right thing for this area and we feel that sustainable tourism is the future in Niagara – not one day activities,” she said.
Thomson has said she fears others will seek permission to perform stunts on the Parks Commission. Cochrane has also applied to perform a feat similar to Wallenda’s and has also been rejected.