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Mayor sings for Hard Rock's supper

Niagara Falls Repoerter

June 15, 2010

By Frank Parlato Jr.

If the mayor of Niagara Falls, Paul A. Dyster, happens to like you -- and it helps a lot if you don't come from Niagara Falls -- then you can get almost anything. He will give you public money, even if you don't really need it.

If he doesn't like you -- say, if you are a local developer who employs local people with no international glamour -- you can wind up like One Niagara. He will do everything in his power to close you down, run you out of town and put your people out of work.

As for the international corporation the Hard Rock Cafe -- the mayor likes them. This year, Dyster persuaded City Council to spend $180,000 in casino revenue on six free outdoor concerts run by the much-favored Hard Rock Cafe, up from $145,000 last year.

Strangely enough, while the city of Niagara Falls pays for these concerts, Hard Rock gets the profits, by selling beer, hamburgers, souvenirs and other concessions.

Of course, the mayor has every reason to like the Hard Rock.

For one thing, they are not poor or struggling locals, but a billion-dollar international corporation owned by the Seminole Nation of Indians. For another, the mayor himself, sources say, has a hand in picking the bands that perform in these publicly funded Hard Rock concerts.

That was one concession the clever Hard Rock management made to get our musical mayor to ante up hundreds of thousands of our money. It is the best of both worlds: vanity concerts for our mayor and corporate welfare for Hard Rock.

The free, publicly funded, outdoor concerts are to be held on Saturday evenings, beginning July 3, on Old Falls Street, adjacent to the Hard Rock, across from the main entrance of the Niagara Falls State Park.

It appears to be a rather lackluster lineup of mainly has-been and never-were acts. The lead-off act is Canadian performer Gord Downie without his band The Tragically Hip. The next five are: '80s one-hit wonder The English Beat; '70s star, now converted to Christian rock, Lou Gramm; '90s one-hit wonders Soul Asylum and Tonic; and finally, the Buffalo Philharmonic performing the music of Pink Floyd.

Judging from last year, most of these concerts will probably not be well attended.

Last July, about $25,000 of our money was spent on a Hard Rock concert by an obscure group called Donna The Buffalo. About 250 people attended. The mayor and his friends were there in the VIP section.

The next concert -- another $40,000 was spent -- was by the has-been California rock band Sugar Ray. Sugar Ray would not likely receive anywhere near $40,000 for a performance here if concert promoters had to invest their own money -- the act being more suitable as a modest side-show attraction at a county fair or race track.

Which raises a question: Why is a nearly destitute and over-taxed city of 45,000 people, a city that apparently cannot afford to repair its own streets, paying for free concerts anyway?

The Sugar Ray concert was the best attended of last year's Hard Rock concert series. It attracted what looked like perhaps 500 people. At $40,000, that's roughly $80 per person.

The mayor's supporters dispute that number and say Sugar Ray did not attract 500 people, but 10 times that -- about 5,000.

Crowd estimates are always hard to calculate, but the Reporter took pictures throughout the night. By our most generous estimate, 900 attendees were there for a brief period during the event. During most of Sugar Ray's performance, the crowd ranged from 500 to 600, as people kept coming and going.

How did the mayor's supporters come up with the 5,000 figure?

The Sugar Ray concert was held on Saturday night, July 11, on Old Falls Street, 500 feet from the Niagara Falls State Park. It was at the height of the tourist season. Nearly every one of the city's 2,900 hotel rooms was occupied that night. Tens of thousands of visitors were in the city. During the course of the concert, thousands were walking to and from the state park, right past the stage where Sugar Ray performed.

Some people stopped and gawked for a minute or two, or sometimes longer, before moving on to their destination, Niagara Falls. By counting every person who glanced at the concert stage, whether they stayed for one song or one second, it may have added up to 5,000.

But to say 5,000 attended the Sugar Ray concert would be like saying that, had a street musician been performing with his tip jar, that 5,000 attended his concert.

The difference is, the street singer might get $200 in tips. The city of Niagara Falls paid Hard Rock $40,000 to put Sugar Ray on stage.

Of course, free outdoor concerts are popular in some cities. At the best of these, promoters risk their own money to bring in acts, and try to make money on concessions, or through sponsorship arrangements. Most of them provide someplace to sit -- even if it's on the grass.

As was proven last year, in Niagara Falls, free, outdoor, standing-room-only concerts are not usually a good draw. People rarely come from a distance to stand and watch mid- to low-level acts. It is decidedly uncomfortable to stand for long periods, and here there is nowhere to sit except on pavement.

As for attracting tourists who are here to see the falls, most hardly know or care about free concerts by musical acts they may not have heard of.

Big acts -- the ones that actually draw regionally -- range from $250,000 to well over $1 million for a show. The mayor's plan to invest our money in third-rate acts and give away the concessions, and then hope that thousands will flock to Niagara Falls, is flawed. Let's put it this way: He wouldn't do it with his own money.

Nevertheless, the concerts last year were not a total loss.

The mayor, at least, seemed to thoroughly enjoy his $40,000, taxpayer-funded nights. Last July, it was intriguing to hear Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath announce to the tiny crowd, "Hey, it's great to be in Niagara Falls. Where else can you go where the mayor of the city comes backstage and does shots with you?"

It has been asserted by our concert-promoting mayor that these concerts "boost downtown businesses."

One downtown business probably made money from the concert series -- the Hard Rock Cafe -- from their concessions. And since Hard Rock possibly pays less for the acts than our city gives them per concert, Hard Rock might also make a profit off the acts themselves.

For instance, if Hard Rock got $30,000 for a concert by Lou Gramm, who just came off a modest appearance at the El Dorado County Fair, and Hard Rock paid Gramm a more-than-generous $15,000, the other $15,000 goes directly into Hard Rock coffers as good clean profit.

The "helping (other) downtown businesses" argument, however, is hard to pin down. The concerts are held on the biggest tourist days of the years -- Saturdays in July and August. The hotels are already full. The restaurants are busy. Gord Downie, the one performer in the series who might actually be a regional draw, is scheduled on the Fourth of July weekend -- the one weekend downtown Niagara Falls doesn't need any draw.

Still, as one can exaggerate a concert's attendance figures by counting everyone who stops briefly to listen on their way to the falls, the city can exaggerate the economic impact of these concerts. They can say people in hotels for the busy Fourth of July weekend -- when every hotel room is booked anyway -- did not come to see the falls but Gord Downie.

City officials also contend that the concerts provide another form of economic benefit, since concertgoers park in the city-owned Rainbow Parking Ramp.

Last year, city officials said, revenue at the ramp increased on nights when Hard Rock concerts were held. They failed to mention that these summer concerts were held on Saturdays in July, the biggest tourist days of the year. Based on the small turnout, it is doubtful that even 100 cars parked in the ramp for the concerts.

Still, if anybody did park in the ramp, they got to see some pretty eye-opening graffiti messages painted on its walls. One of them, "F--- the USA," is intriguing, since that would be one message any American city that owns a parking ramp -- where tourists from around the world park their cars -- would probably not want in plain view.

With $30,000 or less, or the cost of one free concert that nobody goes to, the city could paint over the graffiti in the ramp.

Perhaps for the cost of two free concerts, other repairs might be made, like securing broken lights, covering exposed steel, repairing crumbling concrete and replacing particle board put in place of broken windows.

Maybe money from some concerts -- when lonesome musicians played mainly to the mayor and his friends, with or without throwing back shots backstage, as passersby glance without stopping and get counted as concert attendees -- could be used instead to make the ramp safer and cleaner.

Obscene graffiti and gang symbols adorn walls; the dank stairs smell of urine. Homeless people pop out from behind the stairs to beg money. Drugs are sold. Windshields are smashed, car doors pried open. There have been robberies in the ramp's dark corridors.

Instead of the mayor's vanity concerts, we could use the money to clean the place. That would probably result in more tourists paying to park there -- and that, in turn, could be used in the general budget.

As for billion-dollar corporation the Hard Rock Cafe -- if they want to promote concerts, they should take the risk. They should take the profits, but pay for their own concerts.

They could still let the mayor go backstage.



  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.