Self-described as “the most aggressive revitalization program in Canada,” the transformation of Queen Street, Niagara Falls from a largely derelict wasteland to a thriving, reclaimed watershed of creativity, clearly demonstrates the art of positive thinking.
Nonetheless, a bit of cash doesn’t hurt the daring metamorphosis. With somewhere in the order of $20 million, 59 properties were snapped up by Historic Niagara Development (presumably at bargain prices) and put on offer for lease—but not as is. To make their plan work, visionary Mordechai Grun and marketing ace Toni Williams scoured the peninsula for artistically minded organizations that were willing to relocate and expand (as is the case with The Buttery—soon to be offering ball room dancing to help work off the famous feast menu), or add to an existing franchise (Balzac’s Cafés can also be found in Stratford and Toronto).
The extensive renovations that have been completed so far are now enough to bring the naysayers onside (and perhaps taking ownership of this marvellous concept) and make believers of those whose imaginations weren’t firing on enough cylinders to “see” what could be achieved. As we sipped our coffees in Balzac’s, Grun deftly summed up the challenge. “Not everyone understood the relationship between the public sector and the arts, but it’s not a weird theory. God is in the details—purchasing or building the right assets is not enough; they must have a similar ambiance and feel and incorporate their surroundings. Over the past couple of years there have been three phases: at first the City [of Niagara Falls, which, ironically, shares the same street] said no. Next we heard it could happen, but there was no money and now their idea is working out just fine.”
In many ways, the catalyst to this massive undertaking is the Seneca Theatre. Now renamed the Seneca Queen Theatre for the Performing Arts, the abandoned movie house has been thoroughly refitted and ready to begin entertaining residents and tourists alike with an ambitious array of popular family theatre and musicals. “We have an agreement with Gypsy Theatre [who will continue to use their Fort Erie location to train tomorrow’s actors and audiences]. In exchange for rent and the renovations, they’ll do what they do best: produce theatre,” explained Grun. It’s any struggling theatre company’s dream. The challenge ahead is to get the word out and fill 310 seats night after night.
“Everyone’s thrilled to see this company go in,” agreed Williams. “It will be the anchor and another important step towards our goal of establishing an entire theatre district. Beyond Gypsy’s performances, we’ll have dinner theatre at the Mide Bistro, small shows in Historic Niagara Artistic Exhibition Center and jazz at 4triple5 Gallery. During the summer we’ll have actors and musicians on the street—there will always be something on so we can develop consistent traffic. Who knows, maybe we’ll even close the street on weekends.”
Still, with fully two-thirds of the Queen Street properties not yet rented, there’s lots of work ahead. But with the determination and enthusiasm of the principals, it’s not difficult to see success is just around the corner. JWR