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It was a year when a man going for a walk was the biggest thing to happen in Niagara Falls in years. ¶ The fact that he did it on a wire OVER the falls on live network television might have had something to do with it. ¶ There is little debate that Nik Wallenda’s stunt was the biggest story of the year in Niagara County, but several other events and developments made 2012 a memorable year, some for good reasons, some for tragic reasons.

Time of Nik

It was an idea so far-fetched you almost had to do a double-take to comprehend it.

Someone wants to walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls? In the dead of night? Without a tether?!

More inconceivable was the successful effort to repeal centuries-old laws against stunting at the falls.

But there Wallenda was this June, the self-described King of the High Wire, looking like an ant atop a string.

There he was, man conquering a natural wonder of the world, capturing international attention with a daring strut across our thundering cataracts.

The feat has thus far failed to light a spark of development throughout the Niagara Frontier.

But for that one brief shining moment, Niagara Falls resembled the type of bustling tourist town it always should have been.

Tens of thousands streamed into Niagara from across the country to see the stunt with their own eyes, filling hotels, eating at restaurants, looking for ways to spend their money.

Some stood at the rim of the Niagara Gorge for hours, eager for a glimpse of the falls and the gutsy daredevil who aimed to cross them.

Even the depressed American side of Niagara Falls sprung to life, filled with street vendors, fire-breathers, carnival barkers and families.

Nearly a year to the day after state lawmakers proposed the spectacle in Albany, Nikolas Aaron Wallenda took 26 minutes to cross from Goat Island to Canada.

He did it as the center of a network television spectacle, walking, talking, praying his way across the two-inch steel cable as one of nature’s greatest forces raged below.

“Oh, my god,” he said on ABC-TV. “It’s an unbelievable view. I am so blessed to be in the position I am to be the first person in the world to be right here. It’s truly breathtaking. This is what dreams are made of, people. Pursue your dreams and don’t give up.”

That was his lesson all along, even after he became the first human to walk directly across the falls.

Even the unthinkable could be achieved, he said, even turning Niagara Falls around, making it the gem of our region rather than the embarrassment.

It could happen, Wallenda said before he left. Just remember June 15, 2012.

Food for thought

For years, Niagara Falls residents waited … and waited … for some type of progress downtown.

Something – anything – for the 8 million yearly tourists to do after viewing the raging cataracts would be considered an achievement.

That’s why officials were downright giddy when the Culinary Institute Niagara Falls opened its doors in September.

The grand opening of the $30 million project was almost surreal for those who remember the former Rainbow Centre mall as a deserted, leaking monolith that stood as a symbol of the city’s many development blunders.

One-third of the mall was transformed from a spot where pigeons nested and paint peeled to a welcoming array of stainless-steel classrooms and new eateries.

All at once, more than 200 Niagara County Community College students in chef whites were suddenly downtown, learning in the classrooms, living in hotels, eating at restaurants run by their peers.

For many residents, that was a shock, too – to go downtown and find more than a Denny’s and a smattering of Indian restaurants aimed at tourists who come to the falls each year.

First came the Old Falls Street Deli, a lunch spot, then a bakery where students made pastries for the casino, then Savor, a fine-dining restaurant that reported steady business on a recent weekend.

The cooking school also included a new kitchen where residents or tourists can learn to cook, a winery selling local wines and a Barnes & Noble cooking supply store.

More than that, though, the $30 million project was a sign that, yes, a project could actually get built in Niagara Falls.

“They finally did something right in this city,” said Elsie Martino of Grand Island. “It’s about time.”

Other development plans – a boutique hotel, shops in the rest of the mall – have followed the opening of the institute. Whether they will come to fruition remains unseen. But they now have a blueprint to follow.

No free concert

Popularity comes with a cost, and for the people of Lewiston, the cost of free concerts at Artpark was traffic congestion like they had never seen. That’s partly why in 2012, Artpark began charging for its previously free Tuesday in the Parks concert series.

When park officials announced the decision in March, they said charging for the shows would lessen the impact that the influx of thousands of people each week had on the otherwise quiet village.

“The crowds here for really big concerts have been kind of overwhelming,” Artpark President George Osborne said. “It’s just grown to be so big, and we really couldn’t find a way to control all the people until this project.”

The new admission charges of $5 to $25 for tickets – along with reduced parking fees – were announced as part of a plan to spend $4 million overhauling the facilities. The upgrade includes a new elevated stage, fences and ticketed entrances.

Lewiston officials were delighted to hear that organizers of the concerts were taking steps to control the crowds that irritated locals and clogged Center Street each Tuesday night.

Mayor Terry C. Collesano and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, had organized a forum to hear citizen input on the concerts, whose headline acts bring in funds for the Artpark & Co. concert promoter. Osborne said plans to control the crowds inside the concert area were being developed before those meetings, at the urging of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Even with the new fees, the concert series was a popular as ever with acts such as Peter Frampton and Heart. The concerts brought them to Artpark. The music brought them to their feet.

Into the Mist

It was a year of ups and downs for Niagara Falls’ most famous tourism operator.

The Maid of the Mist began 2012 in limbo, the future of its boat tours in jeopardy after more than a century of existence on the American and Canadian sides of the falls.

It all started when the Canadian government decided that – for the first time in history – it would throw open boat tour operations at the base of the falls to public bidding. The Maid had long held no-bid contracts with government agencies to run tours from both sides of the falls.

The Canadian operation, though, was the more profitable, with roughly two-thirds of boat riders coming from the more developed Niagara Falls, Ont., tourism market.

That’s why Maid officials were no doubt shocked and disappointed to learn in February the iconic company had lost out on the new Canadian contract. A new company, Hornblower Cruises of California, was willing to pay millions more than the Maid had for years to run the tours.

Maid President Christopher M. Glynn later said the company was “very disappointed” – maybe the understatement of the year given the impact the decision would also have on the American boat tours.

Because of a complicated docking arrangement, the Maid was facing a future without winter storage facilities on either the Canadian or American sides of the falls.

If the company couldn’t built a new facility – and fast – many said a new company would also run American tours out of Niagara Falls State Park.

For a while, the outlook was grim, especially after state officials began talking about environmental and historical hurdles to building a new site on the American shore.

That all changed, though, when the Maid got the ear of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Hiring a lobbyist to peddle influence in Albany, the company this month struck a deal with the state to build a new storage area near the old Schoellkopf Power Plant ruins.

Next year will mark the Maid’s last summer on the Canadian shore, but the American operation will keep running for at least another three decades.

It was disappointing for Hornblower and any other company with its eyes on the American tours.

But for the Glynn family of Lewiston, it meant the salvaging of an iconic business long identified with Niagara Falls.

“Gov. Cuomo has saved the Maid of the Mist,” Glynn said. “She was in trouble, but he saved her. We are profoundly thankful that he was there when it counted.”

Walmart comes to NT

For decades, people flocked to the building at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Erie Avenue in North Tonawanda.

It used to be for entertainment at Melody Fair. As of August, it was to shop at Walmart.

The retailer, which first pitched plans to build on the site of the old concert venue in 2006, finally opened its newest supercenter this year after overcoming a series of lawsuits filed by store opponents, including Frank Budwey, of Budwey’s Supermarket.

The Assessor’s Office projected city tax revenues at $136,000 a year. Another $80,000 is expected for Niagara County and $220,000 for the school district, Ortt said. It also was expected to bring 300 new jobs to the area.

Walmart officials touted the 185,000-square-foot store as an example of a new wave of stores that are more customer-friendly, with a layout designed to make shopping easier and quicker.

“The layout of the store is easy to navigate, which will save our customers time as they shop for everyday necessities,” said Chris Lazarou, the store manager. “By grouping products that our customers most often purchase, including health and beauty and pet supplies, we are making one-stop shopping even easier.”

That’s small consolation to competitors who say that Walmart undercuts prices to out them out of business and neighbors who say that the stores increase crime in the area and diminish their quality of life. But for bargain hunters, Walmart’s presence is music to their ears.

Budget defeat

Most school boards in New York, painfully aware of the anger and frustration property owners harbor about their tax bills and dealing for the first time with a state-imposed tax increase cap, presented budget proposals with tax rate increases that ranged from non-existent to modest, in the neighborhood of 2 percent.

But in Niagara Wheatfield, residents found themselves voting on a spending plan that would have increased the amount to be raised by property taxes by almost 10 percent.

The results were predictable and painful.

Voters in May defeated the budget, 1,713-2,004, making Niagara Wheatfield one of only two districts in the region to say no and the only one in Niagara County.

“Obviously, the voters have spoken tonight, so we’re going to have to go back and make some serious cuts,” Niagara Wheatfield Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey said shortly after the results were announced.

The district was trying to offset an $8 million deficit caused by five years of spending reserve funds. Spending in the budget was down 1.84 percent, but the tax levy was slated to go up 9.9 percent, above the district’s state-mandated tax cap figure of 7 percent.

With state and federal aid declining by $5 million over the previous five years, school board members adopted the lowest budget in five years.

Concessions from teachers and staff saved the district more than $1.4 million. Still, there were major cuts totaling more than $4 million.

But residents said the vote was a clear message to administrators and board members that they needed to do better.

“At some point you have to say enough is enough. I think nationally and statewide and locally for the last 10 years, that’s what people have really been saying,” said resident Gary Bauer.

The message was received. A revamped budget, with a reduced tax levy increase of less than 5 percent, was approved in what Dumphrey said was a record turnout.

Wilson home explosion

Wilson School Superintendent Michael Wendt said the words that everyone else who heard the story was thinking: “It is beyond belief.”

Just after 6 a.m. July 24, an explosion fueled by propane leveled a house on Chestnut Road, killing a 14-year-old girl and injuring her parents and two of her siblings.

Sarah Johnson, 14, who would have started ninth grade in the fall, was found dead by rescuers combing through what was left of the house about three hours after the explosion. Rescuers from nearly 10 fire departments had responded to the scene.

Sarah’s sister Katie, 18, suffered severe burns. She would be hospitalized for seven weeks. Their parents, Judith and Jody Johnson, and their brother Nathan, 16, also were injured, although much less seriously. Two other Johnson children, Sam, 10, and Nathan’s twin sister, Hannah, had stayed at a family friend’s house the night before and were not home at the time of the explosion.

The tragedy brought an outpouring of grief, followed in quick succession by generosity and support from the Wilson community. A series of fundraisers brought in more than $100,000 for the family.

“This is Wilson,” said Jake Adams, junior varsity soccer coach of Sarah Johnson. “It’s a small town, and this is what Wilson does.”

The Johnsons later filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Noco Energy Corp., the Town of Tonawanda company that supplied propane gas to their home.

The suit acknowledges that Jody Johnson disconnected the 500-gallon Noco propane tank the night before the blast after his daughter smelled an odor in the house and hooked up a 100-pound propane tank he owned to the copper line leading into the home.

The suit alleges that a Noco staffer never warned that the situation should be considered dangerous, but Noco officials have said the suit confirms that it was not a Noco tank that blew up.

The case will eventually be heard in State Supreme Court.

Still no payoff

If the Nik Wallenda wire-walk and the new culinary institute gave Niagara Falls reasons to cheer in 2012, the Seneca casino dispute gave it reason to weep.

Nothing had a more negative effect on the city this year than the dispute between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians.

Both sides fought for most of the year – and are still fighting – over the issue of Indian gambling exclusivity in Western New York and across the state.

And Niagara Falls was perhaps the dispute’s worst victim.

Because it believes the state violated that exclusivity with racetrack casinos, the Indian nation has not paid the city its yearly slot machine revenues in three years – a figure that now nears $60 million.

There’s debate about how wisely the city used the $70 million it received before the stalemate. But no one argues how difficult it made this year’s budget process.

City leaders were faced with closing a budget gap that started at $10 million. They cut everything from vacant housing demolitions to street paving to funding for the state’s local economic development agency. And in the end, a handful of city workers received layoff notices.

“I call it a disaster budget,” Mayor Paul A. Dyster said when he unveiled an original 8 percent tax hike and more than 20 layoffs.

The City Council took its budget ax to the document, eliminating the tax hike and restoring many of the jobs by cutting the USA Niagara Development funding, deleting hundreds of thousands in consulting fees and cutting the salaries of two Dyster appointees.

That pleased many residents who complained about the taxes and said the city should not have been so dependent on the casino revenues.

But if the crisis was averted for this year, it’s already visible on next year’s horizon. Next year’s budget includes casino revenue the city may never receive.

And while arbitrators will determine next year whether the state or Senecas were wrong, no one is saying exactly when that will happen.

For Niagara Falls, that resolution can’t come fast enough.

Scandal at SPCA

It started with two staffers raising questions about the treatment of Niagara County’s abandoned animals.

It gained steam with an investigation by animal officials in Erie County.

And by January’s end, it was a full-blown scandal at the SPCA of Niagara.

Niagara County wasn’t the only site where the mistreatment of animals made headlines this year. But the Lockport Road shelter became ground zero for a community debate about how animals are treated at such facilities.

It all began when two former employees of the shelter alleged widespread instances of animal cruelty and mistreatment at the shelter.

They were met with skepticism and denial from some community members and coworkers but their concerns – and those of animal rights organizations throughout the region – ultimately forced an investigation by the SPCA Serving Erie County.

Skeptics originally doubted the Erie County organization would do an objective analysis of its Niagara County neighbor, but Executive Director Barbara S. Carr didn’t mince words when she revealed her findings.

At the end of January, Carr released a “horrific” report outlining a dysfunctional culture that she said led the SPCA of Niagara to lose track of 245 animals and kill others in a painful, cruel manner.

A full-scale house-cleaning ensued, first with the firing of Executive Director John A. Faso, who disputed some of the findings.

High-profile criminal defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. became the point-man for a reorganization of the board, whose 15 members all resigned to make way for new candidates.

Before the old board left, though, it hired a Lewiston veterinarian to oversee animal operations. He resigned one day after The Buffalo News published multiple accounts of former customers and co-workers who said the veterinarian mistreated animals previously.

Erie County SPCA employee Amy Lewis was hired by the new board to run the Niagara operation along with Lewiston pet store owner Andrew Bell.

Officials at the shelter have reported higher animal survival numbers since the changes, but they say the shelter is still in financial troubles – the same troubles that plagued the previous regime and perhaps allowed the violations to occur.

A violent stretch

It’s not the way anyone would want 2012 to be remembered, but a pair of unthinkable acts of violence a few days apart landed Niagara Falls in the spotlight.

• Isabella S. Tennant, 5, of Cheektowaga, was killed and her body was found stuffed in a garbage can in an alley between Third and Fourth streets, several blocks away from her great-grandparents’ home Aug. 27.

• The body of Loretta J. Gates, 30, missing since Aug. 25, was found in pieces, with parts of her body found in the Niagara River on Aug. 29 by state police, and more body parts were found later in Hyde Park by Niagara Falls police.

In the wake of those deaths, the Rev. Jimmie Seright, the program director of SNUG – GUNS spelled backward – and executive director of the New Jerusalem Reporting Center for Boys, called on the community to come together for a rally in a show of support to stop gun violence. He said he was frustrated because the people he wanted to take notice are the ones who are using guns in the streets.

“When we do these rallies [it is to speak to] the people who are involved in these types of incidents or are of a mind to do something stupid like this,” Seright said.

“This is to let people know this will not be tolerated. We have to speak out against [the violence.] We will do whatever we can to stop this from happening in our community,” Seright said of the rally.

Two people were charged in Isabella’s death. The investigation into Gates’s death is continuing.

email: niagaranews@buffnews.com