PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
NIAGARA FALLS – The Niagara Parks Commissions made an about face Wednesday morning, approving a proposed Niagara Falls wirewalk by aerialist Nik Wallenda.
The approval came during a meeting of NPC commissioners during a scheduled meeting at the Whirlpool Golf Course.
In December the NPC turned down Wallenda, citing a long-standing prohibition on stunting. But Wallenda continued lobbying and eventually got a meeting with Ontario Tourism Minister Michael Chan in January.
Following that meeting, the Chan asked the NPC to take another look at the Wallenda proposal.
“It hasn’t set in yet,” Wallenda said. “It’s great news, but I haven’t quite processed it all. There’s a lot to do now. A lot of work. But it’s going to be great.
“I’m pretty emotional right now. This has been a dream of mine since I was six years old. Persistence pays off. I feel like I’m on top of the world . . . It’s a dream, and I hope it’s inspirational to everyone out there.”
The Parks Commission in open session approved a resolution that will allow Wallenda to walk, and makes provisions to consider future performances every 20 years. The Commission argues this will pay tribute to the area’s rich daredevil history, but prevents it from having to entertain regular proposals.
“It’s a new day,” NPC chairwoman Janice Thomson said. “We had further information from Mr. Wallenda that showed the economic impact that could be brought to our region; that was part of the information that was considered.
“This decision was approved in part in recognition of the role that stunting has played in the history and promotion of Niagara Falls. We have made it clear that this is a very unique one-time situation. It’s not an every day activity and will not be allowed to become an every day activity,”
The Commission said it will give Wallenda 45 days to negotiate the arrangements for the walk.
Only six commissioners were in attendance Wednesday. The decision to grant permission was unanimous. Those attending were Thomson, Niagara Falls Coun. Vince Kerrio, Niagara Falls Reg. Coun. Barb Greenwood, Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin and provincial appointees Lori Sterling and Ron McKerlie.
McKerlie, deputy minister of government services, moved the resolution to approve Wallenda; Kerrio was the seconder.
This was all in stark contrast to the way the Commission handled its previous meeting with Wallenda in November. At that time he was allowed to make a 12-minute presentation. There were no questions asked. Commissioners then voted in secret a few weeks later, individually making their feelings known to Thomson.
Kerrio was the only one who would talk about how he voted back then when the decision was announced in December, saying he wanted the Commission to look at Wallenda’s proposal. Wednesday he got his wish and more.
“I’ve always been supportive of this,” Kerrio told the meeting. “Everyone knows that.”
Kerrio’s only question was to see if the walk could be held in June rather than July or August so the tourism industry can take better advantage of the spectacle.
“We’re already busy in July and August. It would make sense to have it when we’re a little slower.”
Wallenda isn’t sure about the date yet. He was skeptical about it happening in June, but said he’s open to listening to all proposals. The date will likely be announced in three weeks.
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. Wallenda emphasized there will be no admission charges to watch him walk.
Thomson said again she did not feel any pressure to allow Wallenda to make the walk. She said the province did not interfere in any way with the Parks Commission’s deliberations.
“I think what happened was they just got to know me better and what I was all about,” Wallenda said. “I respected what they said and their process, but I also told them I was never going to give up.”
While Wallenda’s initial appearance in front of the Commission was last November, he had begun making overtures long before that. He met with Parks general manager Fay Booker last summer and made several trips to Niagara Falls to garner support. The message coming from the Commission was consistent: No.
Over the months, though, Wallenda established a relationship with politicians like Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati and Niagara Falls MPP Kim Craitor, both of whom repeatedly went to bat for the daredevil as he negotiated the bureaucracy.
“Nik’s the real deal,” Diodati said. “When you meet him he is down to earth, friendly, and when you get to know him to start to understand that he’s passionate about what he does. I really admire that in people. It’s inspiring to see people who don’t give up. He was also very gracious and respectful during all of this. I know that went a long way in getting this done.”
Diodati cited Wallenda’s desire to make Niagara Falls a part-time home as one of the reason so many have embraced him and his project.
Wallenda said again he 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. 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.
“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.”
The Americans were much quicker to embrace Wallenda’s vision – at least officially. 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 still needed for the walk’s end near the Table Rock visitor centre.
There was a so-called Plan B, which would have seen Wallenda walk between two points on the U.S. side, but there were problems with that. The New York State Parks department decided that couldn’t work.
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 Wallenda’s planned international tightrope walk.
“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 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.”
On Wednesday Wallenda was beseiged by media from both sides of the border. He is planning a news conference in Niagara Falls, N.Y. today before returning home to Florida.
Immediately after the Parks decision he appeared with Diodati and Craitor, thanking both of them for their efforts.
“This wouldn’t have happened without these two,” Wallenda said.
Craitor had difficulty controlling his emotions.
“This is a great opportunity,” he said. “We have someone of Nik’s calibre walking across the falls. Can you imagine that? He’s going to walk across the falls. When my career is over in politics, one of the things that will be at the very top is that I played a very small role … in making something so significant for the whole world to see. It’s like a dream for me. It doesn’t happen very often in politics that you get involved with something so significant. It’s going to be spectacular.”
Local businesspeople and tourism stakeholders praised the decision.
Niagara Falls Coun. Wayne Thomson, president of Niagara Falls tourism and a supporter of both Wallenda and fellow wirewalker Jay Cocharne, said he’s pleased with the change of heart by the commissioners.
“It’s a great decision,” said Thomson. “Hopefully, Cochrane can participate.”
Cochrane has done several performances in Niagara Falls over several summers. He also requested an opportunity to walk across the Horseshoe Falls, but was rejected not long after Wallenda in December.
Thomson said he believes the walk will have a tremendous impact on tourism in Niagara Falls. Even the pre-walk publicity – news which is already travelling around the world – is the kind of advertizing you just can’t buy, he added.
Niagara Falls businessman and former Parks commissioner Bob Gale said he was happy with the decision, but wished it hadn’t been necessary for the NPC to be forced into taking a second look at the Wallenda request by Queen’s Park.
“I was in attendance today at the meeting and was proud of the open discussion and how I thought that this process was fair for all. I credit the Premier and Minister of Tourism for forcing this review and I hope that an agreement can be put in place whereby Canada, the U.S. and Wallenda all benefit for years to come.”
Dino DiCienzo, president of Canadian Niagara Hotels, said Wallenda’s walk is not about a short-term revenue boost for tourism.
“This is about the bigger picture, about getting Niagara Falls mentioned around the world. Hopefully that will mean more tourists next season and the season after that.”
DiCienzo said combining the world-famous Wallenda name with Niagara Falls will benefit everyone locally.
“His name adds legitimacy to the event. It’s not like it’s just a PR stunt. We’re very excited this is going to happen. It’s a very smart decision by the Parks Commission.”
The tourism minister is travelling in China and could not be reached for comment. However the ministry issued a statement from Chan this morning:
“I am pleased that the NPC has given Mr. Wallenda a more fulsome hearing on his business proposal and welcome any ideas that will generate economic activity. I am confident that the NPC will be working with its community and neighbours to enhance the regional economy.”