8:22 AM, Jan 8, 2010   |    comments
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Niagara Falls, NY Festival of Lights ran from 1981-2000

NIAGARA FALLS, NY - For two decades it reigned as perhaps Western New York's premier winter time event. The Niagara Falls, NY Festival of Lights drew millions of tourists in a traditionally drab time of year for the hospitality industry, and once captured the American Bus Association's coveted designation as the number one event in North America.

Beginning in 1981 travelers descended in droves upon the Falls for the festival's annual 44 day run starting Thanksgiving weekend, to see the electric light parade, and the more than 1-million lights which twinkled in the Falls' South End as well as indoor animated displays, concerts, and athletic events.

But by the time the new century began, the luster had worn off. Competing events sliced into the festival's once unique status and corporations, notably Carborundum and Occidental, left Niagara Falls taking their sponsorship dollars with them.

Now, about a decade after the once vaunted event went dark, there are plans being laid for its return.

"It seems to be that one thing that everyone remembers. They feel like it put us on the map" said Dominic Verni, President of the Downtown Niagara Falls Business Association, which is spearheading the effort for the festival's re-birth.

Recalling the festival's glory days Verni, who is the General Manager of the Niagara Falls USA Hard Rock Cafe, told 2 On Your Side's Dave McKinley, "It helped us compete with Niagara Falls Canada, differentiated us from Buffalo, and it really was something the community was proud of."

Asked why he thought the festival could succeed where it once had failed, Verni replied, "We're determined to make this happen. I think 9 years ago the administration that was running the whole entity sort of died, and I feel like no one had the determination or the courage to pick it back up."

The man who handled the bulk of the publicity chores for the festival during its two decade run was Tom Darro, formerly of the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau, who was unaware of the plans for a re-birth of the event when interviewed for this story by WGRZ-TV.

"First of all, I'd love to see it happen," said Darro, who since his days at the CVB moved on to a job with the City of Niagara Falls before returning to his roots as a disc jockey and radio talk show host on WJJL.

Asked if he thought it was likely the festival could succeed again Darro, without hesitation, said, "Sure it can. There is no reason at all why it can't be like it used to be or even better."

But Darro says it's absolutely critical that organizers of a new Festival Of Lights launch an aggressive marketing campaign, and keep the event from becoming stale if it's to have any chance at longevity.

"People who visit lighting displays during the Christmas season want something new every year. If you host them in 2011 and ask them to come back in 2012, if you don't have a lot of different things, they're gonna start scratching their heads and go somewhere else. It has to change every year," Darro said.

Darro also notes the former festival was largely dependent on some 1,500 volunteers and a commitment from the New York Power Authority to supply the enormous amounts of electricity needed to power the lights.

"It's not easy and it's not inexpensive but its something that can be done if there's enough people behind it," he said.

Verni and company have yet to line up those volunteers, corporate sponsors, or even a commitment from NYPA but he points to the success the Hard Rock had in its initial guitar drop event on New Year's Eve as a reason to believe the Falls is ripe for a renewal of one it's most famed events.

"Seeing tens of thousands of people down here made us believe that the city believed in us and the people of Niagara Falls and all of Western New York will come to the Falls and support these great events."

Those hoping to bring the festival back to life face a dilemma in that they believe, due to the continued growth of the Niagara Falls Canada Festival of Lights, that starting out small is not an option.

"We can't do this small, it has to be large," insisted Verni, figuring that a renewal of the festival which petered out after 2000 would merely send visitors away disappointed, never to return. But starting large would be a tough row to hoe, considering among other things that all the lights and displays that were purchased over the course of 20 years for the original festival were sold off years ago to pay its debts.

Still , Verni seems undaunted.

"I do not think there's anything we can't accomplish because the city's behind us and it just feels like anything we go after they are going to be behind us 100% and we're gonna make it happen," he said.



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