By David South
Id Magazine (Canada), May 16-29, 1996
Niagara Falls – Niagara Falls has always been a town that attracted big dreamers with even bigger schemes. The beauty of the Falls has intoxicated many with grand ideas. Towards the turn of the century, the inventor of the Gillette safety razor, King Camp Gillette, tried to transform the American side into a Utopian paradise, planning to house most of the US population in a community of beehive-style high-rises covering an area 135 miles long and 45 miles wide.
Given the long history of grand schemes to remake both sides of Niagara Falls, it is hard not to see the hyperbole surrounding the planned casnio, slated to open by the end of the year, as another over-hyped dream. Just as Gillette spoke of untold riches, the government-owned Ontario Casino Corporation also sees Utopia ready to be born at the edge of the Falls. As provincial tourism minister Doug Saunderson said last month, “The casino and tourist development will provide Niagara with a kick start into the 21st century… I believe they will move Niagara to the very top of the list of destinations for world travellers.”
Those expectations sound even more impressive if you believe the government’s estimates for job creation. In a city of 76,000, the government projects between 3,000 and 9,000 jobs will result from the casino and its spin-offs. With numbers like that, it is hard to find many people who will say no.
Everywhere in Niagara Falls’ tourist district roads are being ripped up. Tourists from New York, Japan and Quebec tread through the clouds of gravel dust to see the Falls. But it isn’t just the government which is dreaming big for Niagara Falls.
Three dreams are fighting in this town for the hearts and souls of its residents, and depending on your perspective, have their merits. One, a scheme being championed by a group of local church leaders, is to build a wholesome theme park based around the exploits of local heroine Laura Secord during the War of 1812. Another more flamboyant scheme that has been on and off again since 1993, involves building a $1.4 billion theme park dedicated to transcendental meditation. So far, the casino is winning hands down.
The casino on its own is helping to raise another dream, phoenix-like, from the ashes. In 1979, the DiCenzo family built Maple Leaf Village as a joint shopping mall/theme park attraction. Now it sits derelict, waiting for renovations by the Buttcon construction company to turn it into the temporary site for the casino.
The run-down Maple Leaf Village, with its old-world European facade resembling a castle, became known for tacky attractions like the JFK Assassination Museum, the Elvis Presley Museum and the Nightmares Therapy Centre.
Judy MacCarthy has fought plans to build a casino since they were first discussed. She helped put together a coalition of church groups called the Try Another Way Committee. MacCarthy’s dream involves a theme park extolling the virtues of Laura Secord, whose claim to fame was snitching on the American invaders, having them ambushed by Indians near Niagara Falls.
MacCarthy says the provincial government has shown some interest in the project, even sending officials from Toronto to meet with her.
As for the more ambitious transcendental meditation theme park, it looks as if the whole project hangs on securing enough funds to get it off the ground.
In 1993, Maharishi Veda Land’s chair, the effervescent magician Doug Henning, told the media that Niagara Falls had to make up its mind: choose between the transcendental theme park, with its centre-piece floating bridge, or the moral decadence of a casino.
Three years later, what many thought to be a project even less tangible than Henning’s metaphysical musings, seems to still have some life left. Tucked away on the 13th floor of a Bay Street office tower in Toronto, Maharishi Veda Land Inc. – Enlightenment, Knowledge, Entertainment – continues to run with a handful of staff. As three office workers scatter behind closed doors, a secretary tells me the theme park is still a go, but refuses to give any more details. But MVL has told a Florida newspaper it isn’t going to build a theme park on property the company owns there.
Ted Cook, the former vice-president of PCL Eastern, the construction company Henning contracted to build the park, says there was a change in attitude: “Henning’s position softened as time passed (over the casino). He became less opposed on moral grounds, and it was now ‘maybe we can make it work’.”
If there was an epicentre to the Niagara dream machine, it is the office of its mayor, Wayne Thompson.
Dean Iorfida is the mayor’s executive assistant. For Iorfida, the casino is a matter of turning a seasonal economy dependent on summer-time tourists into a viable year-round attraction. Even when they do come to Niagara Falls, he says, the average tourist’s stay is just four hours.
Iorfida is dreaming large, imagining the permanent site will include an auditorium, convention centre and amusement park. “Vegas has gone that way,” he says.
But he also wants to see the whole city transformed by the casino. “We have to spread it around or you get a black hole effect: too much in one location.”
As for the complaints that the casino will only add to the tacky reputation of Niagara Falls, Iorfida believes “the city doesn’t want anything that turns people off, but we can’t stop private enterprise. We are talking about one location, I don’t think it will be like Vegas where casinos try to out-garish each other.”
Many associated with the traditional tourist attractions in Niagara are banking on seeing some of the casino cash. Merchants on Clifton Hill, “The street of fun at the falls,” are hoping they can complement the casino rather than compete.
So far, the tourist trap, despite the shabby strip of Clifton Hill with its wax museums and fudge shops, or even the block after block of cheap hotels and motels, has been able to avoid turning into a seedier form of sleaze – it is still a family atmosphere. In fact, the declasse’ tone of the city hides an impressive stability and prosperity that makes the residents of Niagara Falls, New York jealous. For many opposed to the casino, it is this stability that is at stake.
Overhead is the dayglo pink and turquoise marquee of the Movieland Wax Museum, where one can see wax likeness’ of such luminaries as Jim Carrey. Guy Paone, the general manager of the museum, says he is happy about the casino, hoping it will bring year-round business.
“We get families down here,”he says. “If dad wants to go to the casino, then mom and the kids can come here.”
Paone isn’t expecting any business from the die-hard gamblers though. “The hard-core gamblers didn’t come here any way. You know how it is – in Vegas some people don’t eat or sleep.”
As for some of the doom and gloom about increasing crime scaring off the family tourists, Paone doesn’t buy it. “We are pretty tight on petty crime here. I don’t think the casino will affect the family reputation.”
Paone does have a sobering thought he leaves me with, “we are the suicide capital.”
All the hope has already spawned new jobs teaching the unemployed how to gamble. Frank Cricenti, black jack course co-ordinator at the National Casino Academy, joins a growing number of people employed in the lucrative business of teaching the unemployed casino skills. According to Cricenti, casino schools “are just popping up.” At government employment centres, staff are anticipating more than 100,000 applications to flood in chasing the 3,000 jobs being offered. Such a yawning chasm between expectations and reality means times are good for the adult education business.
At the 47-room Cataract Motel, the casino is an excuse to spiff the place up. “We have painted and renovated the rooms so that they look like they’re brand new,” says the motel’s manager, who will only give his name as B. John.
Other property owners are banking on the casino rescuing them from the slump. Eva Klein of Klein Developments, wants to especially unload her pricier properties. “There has been a little bit of change in the rental market, some casino people are moving into town,” Klein tells id. “We’ve had a high vacancy of higher-end rentals in Niagara Falls and we’re expecting these to be filled by a new influx from the casino.”
For Niagara Falls, the casino looks set to turn the city into a smaller, more Canadian Las Vegas. For a city desperate for more work, that doesn’t sound too bad. For the provincial government’s travelling road show, the next stop is to move the existing Windsor casino’s management over to staff the new casino at Niagara Falls.
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