Niagara Falls, N.Y. sees Nik Wallenda’s Friday night wirewalk as its best chance in decades to revive tourism and spark economic development.
But measuring Wallenda’s long-term impact may be tough - assuming there’s an impact at all.
“Part of our mystique”
The Daredevil Museum in Niagara Falls, N.Y. is a shrine to those who have tried to conquer the natural wonder.
“A trip to Niagara Falls is not complete unless you have a big history pertaining to our daredevils,” says Gary Schultz. “It’s part of our mystique. It’s part of our heritage. It’s who we are.”
Schultz is the self-proclaimed “unofficial curator” of the Daredevil Museum, which is actually a convenience store with a few displays scattered between coolers of beer and soft drinks.
Selling snacks to tourists helps the museum survive, since stunts, like the ones on display, have slowed to a trickle in the past half-century.
“In the old days we were trying to shake our carnie atmosphere that we once had,” Schultz says.
The lack of stunts to draw in large crowds, coupled with the city’s sagging economic fortunes has created a malaise at falls, Schultz says. He thinks Nik Wallenda’s wirewalk will help the area reclaim its identity.
“Niagara Falls has never disappeared off the map, but Niagara Falls needs a polishing,” Schultz says. “We definitely need a polishing. And Nik Wallenda is part of the catalyst.”
Tightrope walking as economic development?
In the last few decades, many daredevils have lobbied U.S. and Canadian officials to stage stunts.
Wallenda was able to convince officials by branding his walk as an economic development event. For example, he agreed to train in public to eke out as many tourist dollars as possible.
“It would have been more convenient to train elsewhere,” Wallenda says. “But we did want to do something for this region, for this area.”
Wallenda’s theory is that tourists watching him train will eat locally and buy souvenirs. But with only 2,000 hotel rooms in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y. and only a handful of restaurants, some have questioned how much additional business Wallenda can bring in.
Street vendor Gerald Robinson saw a small uptick in business during Wallenda training sessions last month. He doubts the city will see that much benefit. Plus, there’s also the worst case scenario.
“If something happens, it might hurt us more than helps us,” Robinson says.
Local officials are banking on making a good impression. That includes Mayor Paul Dyster, who has tapped his city’s meager budget for extra landscaping and other small improvements.
“There’s a cash flow issues,” Dyster admits. “The benefits that we expect from walk will take a while to arrive whereas the costs are immediate.”
Local officials hope to convert days of international media attention into a surge of tourists in the future.
But that might be expecting too much, says Doug Frechtling, a tourism studies professor at George Washington University.
“It’s hard to see that one event like this would be able to break the destination out from the crowd,” Frechtling says. “It will probably have a positive impact on visitation for a couple of years. But I can’t imagine that it would permanently change the branding of Niagara Falls.”
Local officials say turning that positive momentum into tangible benefits will be a work in progress.
“How you convert that to a permanent lasting impact is something that we’ll probably have to learn as we go through here,” says Chris Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, a special economic development agency created by New York State to stem the city’s half-century of decline.
“Since it’s been 100 years since a wirewalk, it might take some time to figure out how we convert that,” Schoepflin says.
But Schoepflin stresses that Wallenda’s walk - and any resulting bump in tourists - is just a small part of the puzzle.
“It’s not something that anyone would be recommending for their investment portfolio, their retirement portfolio, any more than the remaking of their city,” Schoepflin says.
Schoepflin says Niagara Falls needs a specific plan to capitalize on all the attention.
Even Wallenda himself may struggle to break even on the stunt. Lately, he’s resorted to asking for donations online.