Voices of Niagara: Prabhdeep Sandhu, Zaika Restaurant

Prab Sandhu, interviewed at Zaika Restaurant on Third Street, Niagara Falls, New York, on 7th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Prabhdeep Singh Sandhu and I run the Zaika Indian Cuisine Restaurant.  We took over 8 years ago, and we named it Zaika and we started a buffet type system, where you get a lunch and a dinner buffet throughout the summer.

I’m originally from India, from a small town on the border of the states of Punjab and Rajasthan.  I did my higher education in Canada College and I was working in Canada; then I met my wife and that’s how we decided to move here – because she was from here.  I have a passion for food, and the people who owned this restaurant before, they didn’t want to do it anymore, so I thought, let’s try something out.  I wanted to be in business, so that’s what I tried.

I’ve driven a cab for about three or four years.  Then I drove a truck for 7, 71/2 years – I was on the road, all across the United States.  Then I drove a cab again and then I started doing the restaurant business.  Before that I used to be in IT when I was in Canada, as a network admin.  Once I moved here in 2001, with the slowdown in the jobs and all that, I couldn’t find a job that paid well enough, that’s why I decided to drive a cab and it worked out pretty good.  Then I started driving a truck, it was a pretty nice experience, but I think that being in Niagara Falls and running a restaurant is where I fit in.

Business in Niagara Falls is seasonal, it’s very seasonal.  It totally depends on the Maid of the Mist.  The day the Maid of the Mist opens up, the restaurant fills up, this town is full; the day the Maid of the Mist shuts off, everything is off – the city is dead.  We just relax, stay at home, because we tried running it for three years in a row – in the wintertime, there’s not enough people.  Business in Niagara Falls, downtown especially, is strictly based on tourist customers.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, is the Las Vegas of Canada.  They spend a lot of money there: it’s much better, cleaner, and more activities.  They’ve got indoor water parks, and stuff like that…  Niagara Falls, New York, on the other side, it’s very nice, it’s got the parks right by the river, but large investment hasn’t come in…  There needs to be more activities.  I think money is not invested in the right projects.  If you go to Niagara Falls in the winter time, it’s beautiful, but a lot of people can’t go there because it’s so cold.  Having a covered, heated pathway, sidewalk, would really help Niagara Falls tourism, but I don’t think anybody is talking about it…

I would try to bring in more winter activities, all year round activities, like an indoor water park, a skating rink, maybe some zip lining; the other side has zip lining, we could do the same with the gorge in the summer.  Stuff like that would help increase the business.

Connectivity is one of the biggest issues.  The State Park is very well connected – if you want to visit the State Park, the different gorges, you can just hop on the green bus and it takes you all across the State Park, but it’s not connected to the city or downtown.  If those same busses could connect with downtown, I think it would be much better for business, it would be much better for connectivity, tourists can move around, not just at the Falls itself, but also in the city.

When I moved here in 2003 the casino was pretty new.  That was one of the biggest highlights, but right now you see there are a lot of hotels coming up, a lot of new construction going on, and much cleaner sidewalks have been made, and there are a lot of people taking interest in their community.  They are doing a Niagara clean-up drive, they’re giving out awards to people who keep their businesses clean.  It’s helping, it’s coming back.

Since Governor Cuomo put up the $1 billion dollar plan, a lot of businesses are coming down here, because they have a lot of benefits.  Before, the US customers would go and stay on the Canadian side, because they definitely have a better view, but they also have better hotels.  Now more hotels are coming up so a lot more people are staying on this side.  In the last year two years I think I have seen five new hotels come up.  So that means, even if a hotel is 300 rooms – times five that will be 1500 more rooms.

If people are staying here, they will be walking around more.  Another thing is the Niagara Falls Development Corporation, they’re trying to help out with the empire state credits – if you open up a business they give you the façade credits, they give you some money to make it look nicer.  People are showing interest; on Third Street up until last year there were only 3 or 4 businesses that were running – now you see at least 7 or 8 restaurants, so that’s quite a big plus.  I see more people walking on Third Street now, because of more businesses on Third Street.  So maybe they go for lunch someplace and they might decide walking by they want to have dinner here, so they could do that.  More foot traffic is always better.

There is a big Indian community in Niagara Falls now, there is an Indian temple – I think there are about 150 families or more.  The main reason for settling, for me personally, is I have a lot of family and friends that are in Canada, and similarly, a lot of people I know, they have family and friends living in Brampton or Canada.  So it’s kind of like being close to them, so if you have a family get together or something, it’s just a half an hour away and you can be there.

When we were in school in India, we used to open the books – I think it was general knowledge – and they would tell us Niagara Falls is one of the Wonders of the World, so everybody wanted to go to Niagara Falls.  Another thing, the reason there’s a lot of Indians in Niagara Falls in the summer, is because a lot of the cities like New Jersey, New York, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, there’s a lot of Indian population there, even Toronto.  And whenever somebody comes to visit them, they surely want to go see Niagara Falls.  That’s why they make a day trip or overnight trip to Niagara Falls.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video on You Tube.

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.

Voices of Niagara: Joe Hotchkiss, Powercity Eatery

Joe Hotchkiss, one of three owners of the Powercity Eatery, Third Street, Niagara Falls, New York, interviewed on 10th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

Powercity Eatery is located on Third Street, an up and coming street with a mix of cafes, bars and restaurants founded by young entrepreneurs hoping to revitalize the downtown tourist district of Niagara Falls, New York.

“We are Power City Eatery.  We are a New York style eatery and café.  We serve fresh deli sandwiches, we have espresso-based drinks, lates, cappuccinos, things like that.  The people that come in here are very happy to have us here.  We have a nice, large space for people to get together for lunch.  The people that live here deserve good quality food and that’s what we’re doing.  We’re making as much as we can from scratch.  And we’re also giving the community something different that they might not have experienced before.  There’s a lot of pizza places and things like that – we are giving them home made pastrami, fresh bread, home-made bread, we’re giving them good, European-style coffee…

I moved up here, because I was stationed in the Coast Guard, so I lived just north of here for a few years, I met my wife, who worked about 10 minutes away  and I went to school right up the street, at Niagara University, and once I graduated we decided to make this our home.  We purchased a home, we chose this area to open our business.

I think that the people that live here see what this city has to offer, they love the Falls, they love the history of Niagara Falls, the architecture of this city is beautiful.  It’s heart-breaking to see things boarded up, but I think that also gives hope for new growth, that I think the people here are ready for, ready to see.  I would not have picked anywhere else to start up a business.  A lot of people asked us, why didn’t we choose Lewiston, which is a happening area right now, why didn’t we choose Buffalo…  I think that the people wanted this so badly, this little meeting place that provides the things that we have.  I think we got it right, and while the numbers might not show right away, I think, potentially, this space, this business, could be a rock for growth through the city.  It’s made quite a few strides since I’ve been living here.  New businesses have popped up –  apart from myself, there’s a few restaurants, Wine on Third, Third Street Retreat.

The Falls to me represent hope and inspiration.  They’re inspiring to me because of all the people that come here, from different countries, to see the Falls – I hear those stories every day, and it never gets old.  And going and actually seeing the Falls yourself, that will never get old, it’s an amazing experience.  The town itself, the city, to me, represents strength and it’s a large bond that people have here.  Everybody wants to see this place become successful, and it’s just a matter of time before it happens.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Charles Harris, Project Green Space

Charles Harris, Director, Project Green Space, interviewed on 10th April.  He and children from The Connection are developing an urban farm on a vacant lot on Weston Street, Niagara Falls, New York © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Charles Harris, I am a Youth Center Assistant at The Connection Center, an after school programme run by Planned Parenthood.  Being a Youth Center Assistant I work in the kitchen, I fund different type of activities and I’m the Director of Project Green Space.  Project Green Space is basically what you see right here, it’s when we take vacant lots and we turn them into community gardens, meditation circles, or we even turn them into places where we do sculpture art.

This spot is on 16th and Weston, it’s located at 1639 Weston where a house used to stand.  What we did was we aligned with different residents in the neighbourhood, and we decided that we wanted to beautify their environment, so we took one vacant lot and we flipped it around using teams from The Connection Center, which I hired through funding which I got from my ioby campaign, which was a grassroots campaign.  I hired those five teenagers and we created pathways, we created four raised beds by hand, and we have four more raised beds coming out here. We planted different types of vegetables out here, kohlrabi, we planted radishes, we planted tomatoes, all of this stuff is for the community’s use and they’ll be able to continue to use this throughout this year.

We chose to use raised beds because Niagara Falls has a history of what we call brown fields, if you’re well informed about the Love Canal that’s happened here years ago at Niagara Falls, the ground has been polluted and it has a bad history of being polluted and so we don’t choose to grow inside the ground, we choose to use raised beds so that our vegetation isn’t contaminated.

Niagara Falls is my city, I was born and raised here, I do take pride in my city, despite a lot of things that people may see on the news or may hear from word of mouth, there are still people who take pride in this city.  Just like any other city we do have our problems with vacant houses, which we call “zombie” houses.  Zombie houses are vacant houses that just sit and over time become dilapidated to the point where they either end up falling down or the administration decides that they have to be torn down. As you can see in the area that we chose, there’s at least probably about 6 zombie houses in this neighbourhood, where it just shows a big lack of investment by local politicians and by local government.  We don’t really have a say-so of when we can tear these houses down or what’s the next step, are they going to be revitalized,  but we do have a little bit of say-so on the foundation, where we can grow our fruit and vegetables.

When I see the future of Niagara Falls I’m very optimistic, we’ve got a lot of people that do care about Niagara Falls, a lot of residents here that are pushing in the right direction, I do see some positive things happening, like with this programme here.  Through the Resident Engagement Council, we’ve actually been taking a stand to fight against food deserts and to fight blight, so I do see Niagara Falls moving in a positive direction in the next 20 years.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video on You Tube.

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