High-wire artist Nik Wallenda made his case last week to perform a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, saying it would bring $20.5 million worth of tourism spending to the region, plus a $122-million “legacy impact” over the next five years. But his appearance before the Niagara Parks Commission—which has control of the iconic gorge on the Canadian side—underlined the conundrum he now faces: how do you sell the commercial benefits of an event to people dedicated to fighting commercialization?
The commission was formed 126 years ago to curb the hucksterism and stunting that had come to sully the whole Niagara experience. Today, the board interprets its role as rigidly as when hawkers demanded five cents to view the falls through a peephole. “It’s sensationalism,” acting chair Janice Thomson told Maclean’s last summer of Wallenda’s proposal. “That’s not what the falls is supposed to be about.”
Wallenda, an heir to the Flying Wallendas circus dynasty, argues the spectacle will emphasize the falls’ natural beauty as much as his derring-do. Still, his pitch is, at bottom, one of financial benefit to a region buffeted by sagging U.S. tourism. He has submitted a study predicting 125,000 spectators would come to view the walk from the Canadian side, while a stunning 411 million would tune in on television—fully 320 million of them overseas. “What you’ve got is a prime-time event that will last two hours, with one of the wonders of the world as a backdrop,” says Michael Harker, senior partner of Enigma Research, the Toronto-based firm that did the study. “There are host venues around the world that would pay for something like this.” Commissioners responded coolly to the proposal, but have agreed to consider it over the next three weeks.