Niagara Falls Tightrope Walk Would Bring $20M Short-Term; $100M Legacy

NIAGARA FALLS — Both Nik Wallenda and the Niagara Parks Commission are digging in their heels.

Wallenda wants to be the first person in more than a century to walk across the Niagara gorge on a tightrope. The commission seems determined not to let it happen.

The performer was in Niagara Falls Wednesday morning to make his pitch to the commission.

He has already received approval for the tightrope walk from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and he has the support of Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati. But without the blessing of the parks commission and its chairwoman Janice Thomson, the tightrope walk — as Wallenda wants it — can’t happen.

With permission already granted from New York State, Wallenda said the option is there to walk across the American falls in the spring of 2012. But it’s the international crossing over the Horseshoe Falls he really wants.

The Niagara Parks Commission banned stunting over the falls more than a century ago, and hasn’t budged since. After Wallenda’s presentation Wednesday, Thomson said the commission would take it into consideration and make a final decision in the next two to three weeks.

“We can listen to Mr. Wallenda and listen to his proposal, but (the Niagara Parks Act) is the guiding document for us,” said Thomson.

Asked about the suggestion that the decision could be passed over the parks commission to the Ministry of Tourism, Thomson said she doesn’t see that happening.

“I believe strongly that the ministry has appointed commissioners that they have shown great faith in and that they will let us make the decision as we see fit,” Thomson said.

Wallenda’s presentation included new information he hadn’t previously made public — including the exact route he would like to take. While numerous daredevils in the 1800s crossed the gorge on tightropes, they were all done further north. Wallenda wants to be the first person to cross the arch of the Horseshoe Falls.

The two-inch diameter wire would stretch from Table Rock to the visitor’s centre on Goat Island. It would follow roughly the same 312-metre path that John Daly used when he tried to drive a golf ball between the two sites during a publicity stunt in 2005.

Wallenda also used economic impact arguments to put the pressure on the commission.

He commissioned a study by Toronto’s Enigma Research that showed an estimated crowd of 125,000 people would result in more than $20 million in short-term spending. On top of that, an already-confirmed deal with the Discovery Network would allow the skywalk to be viewed live by more than 400 million people around the world, creating a $100 million legacy of future visitors to the area.

“The numbers don’t lie. I wouldn’t want to have to answer to the citizens if I was told that someone was willing to bring in an event that would bring in $120 million. To deny that seems a little bit arrogant and foolish to me,” he said.

But Thomson said she’s not feeling the pressure from the potential benefits of the walk.

“We’re committed to doing the right thing for this area and we feel that sustainable tourism is the future in Niagara — not one-day activities,” she said.

Safety — both for Wallenda and rescue teams who would have to be on scene — has been cited as one of the reasons for the commission’s reluctance to allow stunting, but the performer said Wednesday he would use his own rescue teams and that he has trained for how to deal with emergencies on the wire.

“Worst-case scenario is I would sit down on the wire and hang on. Within 30 seconds I’d be off the wire and carried to safety,” he said. Wallenda went as far as saying he would be willing to wear a harness if that’s what it took to get the green light from the commission.

But Thomson said it goes beyond that.

“For us, it’s the image. It’s not consistent with what we’re supposed to be doing, which is presenting a natural wonder.”

Should the parks commission come back, as expected, with a no to Wallenda’s proposal, he said he will appeal, and will continue fighting “until I get a ‘yes.’”

“This is something that I won’t give up on … boards change, people change, there are appeal processes. But we’ll see what happens. Maybe the numbers were convincing enough for them,” he said. “This is not my first rodeo. I’ve been down this road many times.”

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