NIAGARA FALLS, New York — Thousands of tourists are expected Friday in Niagara Falls to witness Nik Wallenda walk a tightrope across the famous waterfalls, and the town here is hoping to get lucky as well.
Two towns of the same name are positioned across the falls, one on the US side and the other on the Canadian.
Tourism has been booming for years on the Canadian side, but only eight million people, or as few as less than half the annual number of visitors to the Canadian side, go to the US Niagara Falls.
The town has lost its industrial base and seen its population fall from 100,000 to 50,000 over the last 50 years, with unemployment at 11.5 percent.
Paul Gromosiak, author of several books on Niagara Falls and its tightrope walkers, told AFP that "a majority of people in the city are either retired or on welfare."
"Two thirds are in that situation. Only one third is working and most of the jobs are low paying," he said.
The town center, near the falls, is a desolate scene of boarded-up houses, broken roofs, and car parks without cars.
Gromosiak said the abandoned houses remain because "they don't have the money to tear them down."
So there's growing anticipation over the planned walk by Wallenda on a steel cable across the falls, the first time such a feat will have been performed for a century -- even if the safety harness he'll wear makes it less than death defying.
Banners along the main tourist thoroughfare, Old Falls Street, call on the world to "watch history happen." The T-shirt vendors are already set up.
John Percy, in charge of promoting tourism for the town, is ecstatic over the publicity coup. "It is worth its weight in platinum, even better than gold," he said.
Wallenda, 33, will of course only walk across once. So "it will not change everything," Percy said.
But he believes the extravaganza, broadcast on ABC television, will boost efforts already under way to revive tourism.
A cooking institute is set to open, as well as several hotels. A casino has been built and other hotels have been restored.
"We still have a lot of work to do, but a lot is happening," Percy said. "Wallenda is one of the many things I hope that will rejuvenate this city."
The steel wire that Wallenda will cross has been prepared and now speculation is growing over how he will perform. Some even believe Wallenda might remove the safety harness, which was required by ABC, although this might be wishful thinking.
Gromosiak said he wasn't impressed with the feat, compared to the eccentric daredevils of the past, even if Wallenda is crossing a more dangerous portion.
"He is just going to walk? Compared to the other funambulists in the past, his walk is going to be very boring. They did things. They cooked meals, performed somersaults, carried a washing machine, walked blindfolded," he said.