Story and photo by John M. Curtin
The much-needed rain showers cleared just in time Sunday afternoon for the opening ceremonies of the Canal Fest of the Tonawandas. Every year, this weeklong event remains as an anticipated center point in the summers of local residents.
"This is our 30th year doing the Canal Fest, and it's one of the longest-running events in Western New York," says Debby Darling, special advisor to the Canal Fest of the Tonawandas Inc.
The Canal Fest's history begins in 1983, when it was first conceived of by Joe Armenia, a local newspaper publisher, who was soon joined by George Maziarz, who later became state senator. The event, which takes place around the bridges that connect North Tonawanda and Tonawanda over the Erie Canal, was designed to accomplish three main goals: to promote downtown businesses on both sides of the canal, to establish a means to raise funds for non-profit organizations, and to provide the local communities with fun and recreation. Each year, those three motivations still hold true.
"We took special measures this year to make the Canal Fest a more family-friendly event. In the past we'd have public safety issues, mostly with young people and disorderly conduct. This year, we decided to close it down each night at 10 instead of 11 p.m. and it's made a difference. The number of arrests is down 50 percent, and most aren't even from this area," says Tonawanda Mayor Ronald Pilozzi.
This year, more than 40 non-profit member organizations are involved in the festivities. The North Tonawanda side holds more than two dozen food vendors as well as promotional tents for organizations and services like Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Labatt Blue, Coca-Cola, the New York Lottery, the National Guard, Bath Fitters and other event sponsors. On the Tonawanda side of the canal's Webster and Seymour Street bridges are more than two-dozen game booths, and approximately 10 rides, as well as other food vendors.
During the annual T-NT Tug of War on Monday night, whose teams are made up of both citys' government officials, Tonawanda took victory. The losing N.T. Mayor Robert Ortt pushed Mayor Pilozzi in a wheelbarrow taking the lead of Tuesday night's Canal Fest Parade, which took a new route compared to previous years.
"For the first time we were two for two. We won both the Mayor's Cup golf tournament and the tug of war - which only took six seconds to win!" says Pilozzi.
Other special events this year include the Sika Cup Boat Building Challenge, the diaper derby, the car cruise, bike night, and the craft show, which will take place the final weekend of the festival. The closing night on Sunday, July 22, will finish with a fireworks display to be shot off from the Renaissance Bridge at dusk.