Voices of Niagara: Jim Diodati, Mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

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Mayor Jim Diodati, interviewed on 16th April at City Hall, Niagara Falls, Ontario © Alan Gignoux

“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.

Voices of Niagara: Constance Hamilton, Sass Hair Salon

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Constance Hamilton, interviewed at the Sass Hair Salon on Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York, on 18th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Constance G. Hamilton and I own and operate the beauty salon.  I do hair, make up, ear piercing.

My father came here from Alabama because there was work.  At the time, there was no work in Alabama, unless you worked on a farm or something; he was having a new family, myself and my brother was born in Alabama, he had came out of the service and there were factories here, so he came here to work.  As a matter of fact, his friend sent for him, and he came here and got a job in a factory, and in turn sent for my mother, my brother and the little one, my baby sister, was on the way…

That was in 1956.  He ended up working at the Carborundum plant¹.  He worked from 1957 until ‘77.  Niagara Falls was a beautiful little place, I can remember the parades at Hyde Park, they used to have the Maid of the Mist Parade.  It accepted a lot of differences – the Maid of the Mist Parade was basically a Native American celebration², and here it is now, in 2018, and we have the Seneca Nation Casino, and they put a lot of money and work into our area.

(Things started to change in Niagara Falls) the minute I got this shop on Main Street in 1993.  I could see a big change.  The stores started to close, Jens closed the week I moved in here, and everything just started to close down…  That was in 1993 and I had this shop here for two years, but I couldn’t open the doors, because I was just working on it.  And at that time period everything changed.  Also, the bridge, to the Canadians, they cut off local traffic going back and forth, and they pushed it downtown. That was Nexus, Nexus was the name of it.³

Then I couldn’t get this shop open, it just seemed like they was pushing everything downtown, and I couldn’t get the shop open, and so I had to close down here, and then I waited for a shop on Third Street that was already open.  In other words, here, I had to build a beauty salon, because it used to be a store here.  When I went on Third Street, then it was already a salon that was done.  All I had to do was put my licence up, do a little bit of work around it.  I went to Third Street for ten years.

My mother had picked this shop on Main Street up in the beginning and I felt like it was time to come back.  Maybe – maybe, some of the other businesses would open up.  The city said that this would be a test business for the change that was about to take place on Main Street, because of the (newly built) police station.

The biggest change in Niagara Falls is that there are no stores, but that’s across the country, isn’t it? There’s no stores.  They used to have beautiful stores here.  You know, there are beautiful apartments above these shops, and a lot of that changed.  I don’t know if they just decided not to have these buildings open, but some of these apartments, like over here, across the street, they have beautiful, old-fashioned windows and things of that nature, and all kind of old, china toilets, where you pull the chain. I used to have a girlfriend over there that rented one… but for some reason they decided not to put the money in our area and they want it downtown.

(To revitalize Niagara Falls) I think first of all they have to accept differences in people, I think they need to accept that everybody is not coming from the same place.  We have Hispanic people, we have Native American people, we have people who are from India, Pakistan, we have black people, we have white people – people mix and understand differences and support each others’ differences, and try to make it with each other.  They try to accept just some people and that doesn’t work.

I would like to say jobs is one of the challenges facing African Americans in Niagara Falls.  But I think if we try to concentrate more on family, and put things into our children – see I don’t have children, but these kids are my children… I think you should pass on the things that you know, and make them do a lot of things.  I don’t know if we are steering our children in the way we should.  I think education is way too high, it’s so expensive, you know, and then they don’t have jobs when they get out.  So if you pass on, like a trade, and you give them something when they come out they can immediately start making money, because they have families they’re trying to support, then maybe we would do better.

But that’s with everybody, I just can’t say African Americans, that’s with everyone.  Back when we were little, you learned how to cook from your mom, you learned carpentry from your father, plumbing, things of that nature. So now we live in a world where they are taking our children, and they put them in schools and they charge them a lot of money and by the time they get out of school they got real high student loans, $90,000 – $100,000,and then they don’t have the money to pay for them.  So how are they going to come back and work it out?

Young people try to leave Niagara Falls, but they come back.  Because along with beauty in this place, they are also finding that some industry is coming back here, not the kind of industry you used to have, like chemical plants and things of that nature, the industry that is coming back here is technology.  They are finding that it’s cheaper to come here.

They just did – on the Grand Island toll – they did Easy Pass where you can go back and forth, because it was actually a nightmare, going from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, when the offices were closing because they had such terrible back-ups.  I’d be trying to figure out – where are all these people coming from?  People are coming back to work in Buffalo, Niagara, Youngstown, places like that…

(The salon) is making a living for everybody, although it’s not like it was back in the day. This is as light as it’s been in months, but the phone is ringing so it’s going to be busy this week.

(Niagara Falls) is a beautiful place.  This is my home town and I am able to work with local businesses and I am able to work with people, who are different; I have all kinds of clients, it doesn’t matter what colour they are, so I am able to touch many people who come to this city looking for something.  I got people coming from out of town, I take them down to the Falls a lot.  It gives them something to go see.  They love it.  It’s funny how people appreciate where you are more than you.  But then, sometimes I get a chance in the evenings to walk, you know I do my miles, I’ll go to the waterfalls.”

¹The Carborundum plant was opened in 1895 in Niagara Falls, New York by Edward G. Acheson.  It manufactured a  man-made abrasive with the consistency and accuracy of crushed diamonds.  The company started with 35 employees, which grew to 6,000 by the 1944.  The company flourished from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s, when it was one of the largest employers in the city.  However, it went through a series of owners during the 1980’s, with the result that plants were closed and workers were laid off, with devastating consequences for those directly affected and the Niagara Falls economy.

²The Maid of the Mist parade ran from 1954 to 1970 or 1971.  According to Andrew Z, Galarneau in the Buffalo News on 8th April, 2005: 

“It commemorates the Six Nations legend of the Maid of the Mist, a young Native American woman — thrice widowed — who tries to commit suicide by riding a canoe over the falls. But before her plunge, she is saved by the Thunderbeings, who heal her in a cave behind the falls.

At one time, the annual summer festival, which included a beauty pageant for young women and a re-enactment of the legend — without the falls plunge — attracted large crowds to Goat Island, where it was presented.

But the event also has stirred controversy among some American Indians because, in an incorrect version of the story, a tribe sacrifices the maiden to the falls to appease a serpent god and save their village from drought and death.”

³A joint program between the United States and Canada, NEXUS allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing through dedicated NEXUS lanes at the designated ports of entry, including the international bridges of the Buffalo Niagara region.  The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (the nearest bridge to Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York) only permits NEXUS travelers to cross, leading to a loss of traffic from non-NEXUS travelers.

The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.