Last March, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster worked hard to secure a deal that granted $450,000 of public money to Mark Rivers of Brix and Company of Idaho to develop a Holiday Market on Old Falls Street near the Niagara Falls State Park.
Rivers was to get $225,000 of city money, along with another $225,000 from the state's USA Niagara. The project, we were told, would cost about $900,000 with Rivers to find the money for the difference -- about $450,000.
Rivers previously developed the $60 million BoDo development in Boise that critics and supporters alike said transformed the downtown district of that capital city of Idaho, with its population of 206,000.
It was puzzling to some why a big-time developer like Rivers needed less than half a million from taxpayers to develop what he said would be a hugely successful temporary-style vendors market.
Rivers said, when he sought approval for public money, that he would procure 80 vendors, each selling unique and marvelous foods and gifts -- and these, combined, would make it the largest Holiday Market in the USA -- one that would operate for 37 days -- from the day after Thanksgiving to New Year's Day.
He also promised a number of seasonal type events to help attract crowds.
With our tax money, he said, he would put on concerts, provide horse-drawn carriage rides, install a huge, lighted Christmas tree, build an ice skating rink, have miniature train rides, a Santa's workshop and more.
Eight months later, according to www.niagaramarket.com, the official website of the market, apparently, instead of the 80 vendors promised, there will be only 29 vendors operating booths during the entire 37 days the market is open and another 13 who will operate for a fraction of the time. It appears there will be no more than 35 vendors operating at any one time. In other words, the market will consist of less than half the number of vendors that were originally promised.
Then again, we got a lot of promises from Rivers.
Here are some, made by Rivers, as quoted in the Niagara Gazette and Buffalo News, when Rivers was in the process of securing the public's money for his planned Holiday Market.
"What we hope to do is to develop something that doesn't exist, something that is particularly special, something that is particularly spectacular, and something that we can all be proud of. We start with a good idea. We execute well. We have good partners. We dream big and we execute," Rivers said.
Rivers called his proposed market "the perfect holiday recipe: one part German christkindlmarket, one part Norman Rockwell Main Street, and one part Rockefeller Center, that will mix and create an authentic, extraordinary winter experience.
"Overall, I think we are going to shine a powerful and positive spotlight on Niagara Falls. We're already getting inquiries from around the world."
Rivers predicted it would make the city "one of the great holiday market destinations."
He added, "I think we can kind of rejuvenate the Niagara Falls holiday experience."
Rivers also said his "research with tour operators and others in the tourism field produced an estimate of 250,000 visitors during the 37-day duration of the market."
At first blush, it seems like more corporate welfare-- along the lines of the Hard Rock concert series, where public money is given to a billion-dollar for-profit corporation without a shred of evidence that it brings financial benefit to anyone other than Hard Rock Inc.
One might suspect that the cost of putting up vending booths made of plywood and paneling, maybe 8-by-12 feet each and other temporary structures for a 37-day affair may actually be -- much like the Hard Rock concerts -- produced at a cost that is less than the public money invested in the project. Rivers, like Hard Rock, might walk away with a profit just from the nearly half-million he gets in public money, without selling one item.
USA Niagara chief Chris Schoepflin -- who spearheaded the effort to spend state tax dollars on this Market -- said the project has the potential to generate $30,000 in sales tax, $35,000 to $50,000 in added parking revenue, $3,000 in bed tax for the city, as it spurs increases in hotel stays, and create 350 part-time (temporary, but just-before-Christmas extra money) jobs during the holiday season.
It sounds -- especially the jobs part -- a bit exaggerated. Hopefully, someone from Shoeplin's staff is monitoring exactly who and how many actually got short-term jobs from the Market and its varied enterprises.
From the start -- although they went along with taxpayers subsidizing the project -- both Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. and Chairman Sam Fruscione said they were not sure the event will come off as grandly as promised. Both said they would have preferred that Rivers would have used more of his own money for the project.
In fairness, Rivers seems like he will deliver on a number of the promised and publicly paid for events.
"We said we would create a world-class event and we are creating a world-class event," he told the press not long ago. There will be, it appears, horse-drawn sleigh rides in the Niagara Falls State Park; snowshoeing; cross-country skiing; an ice sculpture competition; a snowman contest; a Santa's Workshop; an ice rink on Rainbow Boulevard, which will feature two events with former Buffalo Sabres Gilbert Perreault and Michael Peca; and four Christmas concerts at the conference center: Aaron Neville, the Canadian Tenors, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Elisabeth von Trapp.
There will be a Taste of the Season food-and-wine festival, a televised Christmas tree lighting ceremony, a high school choir singing competition and a number of free performances by various local talent.
These are all activities taking place in downtown Niagara Falls, a place that would otherwise be about as dead as a doornail during this time of year.
But, then again, it is the struggling taxpayer who is paying for these events in a city with the highest property tax rates in America. Would the taxpayer be better served by keeping his tax money in his own pocket?
It will be interesting to see if the public is attracted, if there is any significant attendance locally, regionally or from people outside the region who will make this Holiday Market their destination.
Will the various events fall flat on their face from poor attendance? Will the market be barren of buyers, with shops closing early or cutting out before the market ends? Or will this become a wondrous seasonal event that will ultimately fund itself and give this city a boost of confidence -- not unlike the old Festival of Lights used to do?
In my opinion, the market might be a little weak on the vendors' side, the market itself.
"We're on a grand treasure hunt to find and recruit the most distinctive and inspired merchants for the holidays," Rivers told the local media at a time when he was promising 80 vendors. "This is not a carnival or a weekend street festival with funnel cakes. It is a world-class market and event that is already attracting the very best retailers and artisans from the region and beyond. We expect to sell out this opportunity for vendors."
Rivers did not sell out.
He said his Vendors Row would feature vendors offering apparel, footwear, household items, handcrafted gifts, photography, visual arts, children's items, specialty foods and more. The items would be sold in a series of outdoor booths that are in fact being built this week.
So far, the published list of vendors seems to create an interesting mix of sellers and goods, although, to say it again, not half the number that was promised. The Holiday Market might not achieve that critical mass -- that is, to have enough vendors to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people Rivers said would come to the market to feel there is enough here to make the visit worthwhile.
As Rivers promised, many of the vendors are offering high end and for m many shoppers exciting merchandise. These vendors include local, regional and national retailers, including Tony Walker & Co., Melissa & Doug, Biscoff Gourmet, Barker Chocolate Box, Bedhead Pajamas, Blush (Jewelry and Accessories), Buffalo Sabres Store, Di Camillo Bakery, Downtown Chic Boutique and more than a dozen other independent artisans.
Maybe this and the various events will be enough to attract the huge numbers -- an estimated 7,000 people per day that will be necessary to meet Rivers' projection of 250,000 visitors.
In the end, two questions remain to be answered: Will the market be as grand and popular as promised and what will the benefits be?
The public has the right to learn, with hard facts, not just anecdotal information, who benefited from the Holiday Market.
City Controller Maria Brown should request from Rivers a complete report detailing city investment, city share of earnings, concert ticket sales reports, vendor sales reports, event attendance reports, cost to city with regard to police/fire/DPW both daily and for overtime, breakout of Rivers' profit, and of course, a total report on the city's investment of $225,000 and the ledger as to how it was spent.
The mayor should make this report available to the public in order to help determine if these kind of events justify the use of public funds or whether government should get out of the entertainment business, leaving it to private developers who are willing to pay their own way.
Win or lose, Dyster will get much of the credit and most of the blame for its success or failure, since he, more than anyone, outside of Rivers himself, shepherded this project against opposition and prevailed in getting funding and providing Rivers all the support he requested.
Two factors will determine if this market is a success.
The actual attendance and, as determined by precise and proper accounting, what money the public actually got back from its investment.
Now it's time to wait and see.