Niagara Falls State Park is certainly a lucrative and, some would argue, it is an underperforming asset. Presently, the State Parks system does a very poor job programing the parks during the winter season — which is especially true at Niagara Falls where visitor volumes are most robust. Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, the Top of the Falls restaurant, the observation deck, the concession vendors, and parking fees — it all adds up to millions upon millions of dollars in revenue each and every year.
Since the State Park puts enormous strains on city services — from police and fire to roads and sewer — many budget hawks and longtime political observers are demanding that the City start receiving ‘infrastructure relief’ from New York State, commensurate with the burden that the national attraction places on City roads and services. Most residents of Niagara Falls are in agreement.
There is much debate, however, about what that looks like.
The most straight-forward of the strategies being discussed in political circles would include a 25% revenue share, similar to the arrangement once enjoyed with the Seneca Nation of Indians’ gaming corporation. Others are proposing a $10 p/vehicle City surcharge on top of the park’s current $10 parking fee.
Another proposal would bill a ‘municipal services fee’ to the State Park for between $3 million and $5 million annually, leaving the park to determine how it will generate the extra revenue. That could mean a price increase at the Maid of the Mist (currently $16) and Cave of the Winds (currently $11).
If that revenue is segregated from the rest of the City budget, it could be earmarked for tourism programming during off-season months when businesses struggle to survive. That programing could serve as a badly needed anchor to attract new visitor volumes precisely when the industry most needs it.
Critics say that the City would not be particularly competent at managing programming events inside or outside of the park — and that Empire State Development already contracts with Spectra, a division of the Spectrum cable giant, to program and manage Old Falls Street during the summer season. They could be the natural provider and promoter of events inside the park as well.
Others argue that the State Park might be a better manager of the programmable spaces inside the park. If the State Parks Department allocated the entirety of the Niagara Falls State Park’s operating profits towards seasonal programming during off-peak months, it could instill an innovative posture throughout the entire organization — and enhance its relationship with the City rather than further burden it.
Outside the 90-day summer season, tourist traffic in the area dries to a trickle, making it difficult for most downtown businesses to operate year-round. Historically, the State Park has done little to address this — even allowing its main vendors to cease operations during winter months.
Special events and programming could help rebrand Niagara Falls as a year-round destination, with seasonality at the core of the City’s brand. Cultivating tourist volume during autumn, winter, and spring seasons will begin to address the issue at the crux of the City’s economic development challenge.
A destination of seasonal pilgrimage
Niagara Falls has been a destination of pilgrimage for North America’s indigenous people for thousands of years. It is the Mecca of North America, and at the center of the Haudenosaunee peoples’ Turtle Island creation story — the biblical equivalent of the Garden of Eden.
It’s understandable, then, that indigenous activists have been calling on the State Park to begin removing its vast surface parking lots, unnecessary roadways, and concession structures from the park’s grounds. They want to restore a naturalistic and eco-centric experience for visitors and are focused on restoring a lively animal ecosystem inside the park. They imagine a landscape flush with wild strawberry patches, engulfed by coves of spawning turtles, and stormed with birds flocking from across the Western hemisphere.
“When you cross Prospect Street and enter the State Park, it will feel like you’re walking into a lush, mysterious, enchanted jungle of forest,” explains one advocate of the strategy. “It will be like visiting a zoological garden without the cages and fences.”
He argues that removing the park’s three expansive surface parking lots will allow for a vastly more eco-centric experience.
Autumn Season — September, October, and November
Tourism industry experts argue that the easiest way to expand the current tourist season (which runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend and then tails off quickly in September) would be to aggressively promote Niagara Falls as a ‘harvest tourism’ destination in September, October, and November.
They imagine the State Park transformed into a months-long farmers market, the flagship farmers market for Upstate growers — from wine to craft beer, cider to maple syrup. It could emerge as a road trip destination of choice for couples and families across the Northeast and Midwest, particularly on holiday weekends like Columbus Day, Holloween, and Thanksgiving — when local hotel rooms are cheap and plentiful.
“What Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, Octoberfest should be to Niagara Falls in the national consciousness,” one downtown businessman argues. “We need tourists to flock here in the fall because adding three months to the tourist season doubles it. The entire month of October should be programmed to engulf Old Falls Street in beer gardens and artisan vendors.”
He argues that, by staging a month of Octoberfest-themed festivities from late September through October, could be a catalytic growth strategy — if it’s properly coupled with a nationwide advertising campaign. Heavy promotion of the destination in media markets within driving distance — like Toronto, Southern Ontario (the fastest growing areas in North America), Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York — would be key in driving new traffic to the city.
Advocates of the strategy say that a series of free outdoor concerts headlined by chart-topping performers would attract the visitor volumes that could meaningfully impact downtown merchants.
How many people would travel to Niagara Falls, and from how far, to see a headlining Canadian artist like Justin Beiber, Shania Twain, or Drake concert on Goat Island? A Garth Brooks or Billy Joel concert? It’s unclear, but some say it could be hundreds of thousands depending on the weather and driving conditions.
That could cost millions, and it’s unclear whether the State would be willing to allocate those funds from the Park’s lucrative parking business. But it would almost certainly fill up the City’s hotel rooms on weekends when vacancy rates a huge problem.
Winter Season — December, January, and February
The region’s bitterly cold winter presents an enormous challenge to growing the tourism industry beyond November. For many years the Festival of Lights was a, perhaps half-hearted, attempt at just that. The lighting and ornamentation of the park attracted family visitors for an hour or two, but the programing failed to generate the visitor volumes that had been hoped for.
A more wide-ranging experience — that might include snowshoeing, ice carving competitions, wood carving demonstrations, slay rides, impressive ice rinks, and other activities can animate the landscape. (The temporary ice rinks that are seasonally installed by the Dyster administration have been widely panned as chintzy and uninspired, unworthy of the Falls).
More overtly Christmas-themed activities could do a better job of attracting families for longer periods of time. They suggest horse-driven carriages with a slew of nationally recognized characters in holiday garb. Partnering with General Mills as a corporate sponsor could give the Park access to intellectual property like Toucan Sam, Count Chocula, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and a slew of other family-friendly characters. It could be a valuable branding strategy for General Mills as well.
Would the New Era hat company be willing to sponsor regional springtime track and field tournaments on Goat Island, using the island’s ring road as the ultimate running track?
Would Labatt or Molson sponsor a week-long New Years Eve ‘brew-fest’ themed destination outdoor music festival — one that embraces the cold and revels in the winter scenery? There’s something about cold Canadian beer, a deep embrace of all of winters’ rigorous, an New Years’ nightlife excursion in Niagara Falls that would all seem to speak to their target demographic.
Would Rich Products be willing to sponsor the world’s largest dairy-centric Valentine’s Day culinary festival? Or would something more baking or cookie-themed on Mothers’ Day be more congruent with their brand direction?