“One of the biggest factors driving the success of the tourism industry in Niagara Falls, Ontario, was the emergence of gaming – casinos. In 1996 we had our first temporary casino open up and then in 2006 we had our permanent Falls View Casino, which was a billion dollar bill.
And when that happened it was a catalyst. I like to say in Niagara Falls we offer a buffet of fun and excitement. There’s something here for everyone depending on what you’re looking for. When the casino came and we brought in a whole bunch of new people, it created a catalyst. And the private sector stepped up and put in almost two times as much as the public sector. So we started with the billion from the province and we had upwards of two billion from the private sector.
So there’s that many more rooms, that many more employees, that many more people buying groceries, that many more people buying vehicles. And it had a ripple effect throughout the economy. So gaming has been huge and then other industries coming in to service gaming like entertainment, limo businesses, all these different supply chain companies that supply goods and services to the casino.
I think for a lot of people Niagara Falls represents fun. And whether you are interested in golf, trails, history, culture, restaurants, gaming, we’ve got all sorts of neat attractions: jet boats, ziplines, you name it. There are so many fun and entertaining things here that I think enhance the guest experience.
Now spas have become popular. Here in the Niagara region we’ve got wineries, we have distilleries, we’ve got breweries opening up. It’s an emergence of different markets that are being attracted here and it’s bringing in a different kind of clientele. So it’s still developing.
Now in recent times there is the emergence of vacation rentals, Airbnb, VRBO and the other types of home rentals that bring in another clientele, who are staying longer. And when you’re here longer you can do more of what there is to do in the region. We’ve got a long lake area, we’ve got incredible beaches, beautiful soft, sandy beaches all along that area.
But you can never forget the number one reason people come here is because of that water that goes over the rock, the Falls. One of the great natural wonders of the planet. And I can tell you I’ve travelled many places around the world and I’ve yet to meet a person or be in a place where they didn’t know what Niagara Falls was.
I’d say Niagara Falls – instant brand recognition. As a matter of fact, I like to say we’re the Coca Cola of municipalities. I think as long as we always maintain and enhance the beauty of Niagara Falls and let everyone have that initial experience of getting here and seeing it in its natural state, with the mist in your face, the beautiful, full spectrum rainbow shooting over the top…
Recently we had Nik Wallenda go across on a tightrope. That event drew a billion person audience in a 24 hour period to watch him walk across the Falls. A billion people globally. We had 150,000 people show up on both sides of the border to watch him walk across. Because when something happens and the word Niagara Falls is in the sentence it has a multiplier effect. It echoes, it goes further and people listen a little closer. So we’ve definitely got a brand here and I think protecting the brand is going to be really key for future growth.
I think our biggest challenge is complacency. Because the enemy of great is good. Because when things are good you’re OK with what you have.
And the other challenge, of course, making sure that the Falls is always protected and respected in all regards and that it’s not too commercialised up close, that it’s never polluted again as was in the past and taken for granted, that it’s not a sewer, it’s not a dumping ground. And I think by treating it with respect it’s going to give us the gift that keeps on giving.
Niagara Falls, New York, has had their challenges. In the 1950s Niagara Falls, New York, had 100,000 plus people living in their city. At the same time we only had around 20,000 people living in Niagara Falls, Canada. Well, jump ahead from the 50s to today – so not quite 70 years later – we’re at approximately 90,000 on our side and they’re below 50,000 on their side. So it’s been a complete opposite relationship in terms of growth and population.
I feel for them because it’s a city built to house 100,000 people, but they’ve only got half of that to pay all the bills, to maintain all the infrastructure. It’s impossible. So it creates high taxes, more opportunities for negative things. Industry in a large way left the area and as a result they’ve suffered over the years.
Having said that, they’re trying to create opportunities. They do have gaming on their side, as well. They are trying different things to reinvent themselves but it’s not an easy task. It’s a very difficult task. I think they’ve slowed down the slide, and I do think they’ve turned the corner. Certainly, in Buffalo they’ve turned corner and they’re roaring back.
Anything that happens good or bad on either side of the river of Niagara Falls, New York, or Niagara Falls, Ontario, reflects on the other. So we want to make sure that we take care of our reputation and our image and we keep the brand solid and steady. So we meet regularly to talk about our opportunities, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And we try to be proactive and come up with ideas that are symbiotic and ideas that we can work together that’ll benefit both sides of the border.
Downtown Niagara Falls, Ontario, looks rough and it is rough. There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is there’s been some missed opportunity. The good news is there’s huge opportunity. We’ve worked very hard with our other municipal partners in the region and our partners in Queens Park to secure Go train commuter service right to Niagara Falls. That alone will be a massive catalyst for our downtown. The way I describe it, it’s like an umbilical cord plugging into the Greater Toronto Area.
We’re also awaiting federal grant approval for a partnership with Ryerson University to have one of their DMZ’s, digital media zone, in our downtown, which will create an entrepreneurial village, where we’re going to incubate entrepreneurs and we’re going to commercialise ideas.
Those two things happening are both game changers. Happening at the same time, it’s going to completely re-gentrify our downtown. This area that everybody has to go through to visit me at City Hall – I’m not proud of it. I just tell them – watch what we do – because this is one of the last things on my bucket list before I leave this job, I want to make sure the change is in full swing. Because that’s a priority.”
This is an extract. The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.