Project Niagara Fails


Evidently, summer has caught me napping. It wasn’t until last weekend (July 24-25) that I learned that the joint venture of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra for a summer festival in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake (near Niagara Falls, Ontario) had been quietly shelved.

This was news to me – but I can’t help thinking that the mid-July announcement was intended to go pretty much unnoticed. However, a little online research brought me up to date: a press release, dated July 13, coyly cited a "complex economic and political environment" for the collapse of the initiative, called "Project Niagara," after five-and-a-half years of planning.

So what do those words mean? They seem to be a reference to opposition from local residents that has plagued the project for several years. And they’re probably also connnected to the estimated $76 million that construction of the site was going to cost, most of it in proposed government funding. In plainer English, it was a small but noisy NIMBY group and Nervous Nelly politicians that killed the project.

Before the plug was quietly plugged, the TSO and NACO made glowing comparisons of their vision to the Tanglewood and Salzburg festivals, and predicted that the project would pump $100 million annually into the Ontario economy. Thus, the expenses would be recouped in the first year of operation. After that, the $20 million the festival would cost to run annually would amount to only one-fifth of the revenues it would generate. And since Niagara-on-the-Lake is right on the Canada-US border, much of the festival’s income would have come from visiting Americans, spending dollars that otherwise would not have found their way into the Canadian economy at all.

Am I being oversensitive, or to I smell a whiff of disdain for something as "elitist" and "superfluous" as classical music? That would be ironic, since the plan was to establish the festival in a part of the province that already makes big bucks from its wineries, tourism, and the Shaw Festival. You’d think that both politicians and local residents would have come to understand the benefits – in economic terms, at least – that the arts and culture can bring to a community.

But perhaps the NACO and the TSO presumed too much, and in this there may be a lesson to be learned. Ontario is a big place, and I hope that attempts to establish a major orchestral festival will be renewed. Only next time, the orchestras would do well to first determine that they’re going into an area where they’re entirely wanted, and that they have the political support they need to succeed.

Below, you’ll find a group of links that offer information and opinions on this sad story.