Niagara Gazette — They've been working for five years to turn downtown Niagara Falls into a hotspot for blues music.
On Friday, organizers and supporters of the city's annual blues festival gathered inside Conference Center Niagara Falls for a special holiday show aimed at keeping the groove going in 2013 and beyond.
As city officials continue to cut back financial support for the event in light of the ongoing casino cash concerns in Niagara Falls, festival organizers joined up with the conference center's management team - Global Spectrum - in hopes of raising more private funds to support next year's downtown blues jam.
"We are proud that area blues fans have come out to support Niagara’s premier festival event," said Sherry Kushner, director of the Niagara Festival & Entertainment Group, the non-profit organization that has been overseeing festival operations since 2008. "This year, the festival needs extra support from the community. Our main goal, as it has been since the inception of the festival five years ago, is to give the the area to top notch blues festival for free."
The first-ever Blues Christmas Friday fundraiser featured two things that have helped grow the annual festival in Niagara Falls each year - southern barbecue and lives blues. Proceeds from the event, which featured performances by The Electras and Big Tobacco, will be used to cover some of the expenses for the 2013 festival.
"We'd like to thank the community and area businesses for supporting the festival at a time when we are at a crossroads to keep the Niagara Falls Blues Festival alive hopefully we wil moving forward and keep it growing,“ Kushner said.
The Niagara Festival & Entertainment Group was organized and is led by Toby Rotella, a Niagara Falls native who developed a lot of contacts in the blues scene during his days as owner of the old Imperial Garage on Third Street. Rotella and company held the city's first blues festival in 2008, a one-day affair that drew between 2,000 and 2,500 people.
In the years since, the number of festival days has been expanded to include a weekend's worth of activity each September, including dozens of local and national blues performers. Previous Falls blues fests have drawn visitors from as far away as Australia and Alaska. Groups from Florida and California are now regular attendees. More than 10,000 visitors attended the 2010 show.
Due in large part to the ongoing casino cash crunch, city lawmakers cut back on municipality's level of financial support for the 2012 festival, reducing the city's contribution to just $2,500 this year.
In his proposed 2013 budget, Mayor Paul Dyster, a supporter of the annual event, set $10,000 aside for the 2013 blues fest. In amending the proposed budget, Dyster said city council members shifted those funds into a $32,000 fund that would be used for various events downtown next year, including possibly the blues festival or the Hard Rock Cafe summer concert series. Dyster attempted to veto the move, but council members overrode that veto.
Dyster, who attended the Blues Christmas Friday show, said he believes it is important for the city to continue to find funding to support the blues festival, which he said has shown signs of growth in recent years. That growth, he argued, helps area businesses, including local hotels who are accommodating more and more blues festival goers each year.
Dyster said it is possible a portion of the new fund created by the council will be used to support the 2013 blues fest, but that the decision will be left to the council itself.
The mayor said he would advocate for continued use of city casino revenue for future festivals, should the city receive the estimated $60 million in casino cash it is owed from the state under the gaming compact with Seneca Nation of Indians.
"I think this is great," Dyster said. "The blues festival has become kind of an iconic event for us in downtown Niagara Falls in the last several years."