What could save a ghost town? More ghosts, perhaps.
The historic town of Fort Erie hopes that bicentennial celebrations this summer, honouring the soldiers of the War of 1812-14, who helped save Canada from an American invasion, will revitalize an area besieged in recent years by hospital, racetrack and business closures.
Maybe its past will succeed where its present is flopping. If not, Bruce Springsteen might have to write its epitaph with a song.
When it was announced Wednesday that the 115-year-old Fort Erie thoroughbred racetrack would close Dec. 31, it was another crushing blow in the perfect storm that has seen the town of 30,000 recently lose its hospital, its slots and a pharmaceutical firm.
Since the 1960s, eight factories have closed and seven hotels burned down and were never replaced. The next to go are two elementary schools next year.
Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin is disappointed that politicians haven't given enough support, saying the Ontario government is "not that much of a friend to Fort Erie."
Over the past 13 years, the slots poured millions of dollars into town coffers to help pay for roads and sewers.
As the Canadian dollar has risen in recent years, Canadian tourists have been heading over the Peace Bridge in droves to the U.S. Even an unusual strain of caddisflies -- found in only a few other places in the world -- has left. Fort Erie may be the only town of its size which has a strip mall as its downtown. It has become known as Fort Dreary to some outsiders.
But, drum roll, here come the redcoats to the rescue. Celebrations of British and Canadian forces pushing back the Yankees 200 years ago will stretch over the next three years, highlighted this year by a huge military parade on June 23 and the largest re-enactment of the war Aug. 11-12 at Old Fort Erie, site of the bloodiest battle of the conflict.
Up to 100,000 people are expected to attend the June 23 parade, according to Dave Renshaw, chair of the Fort Erie Museum's cultural heritage committee.
"We need some good news; things haven't gone well for us lately," Renshaw said. "We have so much history in this town. It's something we've really got going for us."
Until now, Fort Erie has been known across North America mainly for its race track, which has been on life support for years.
Its closing "should come as no surprise to anyone," said Jim Thibert, Fort Erie's economic development and tourism corporation general manager. He's also CEO of the racing consortium board. "It's a huge blow. We've done the economic impact around the track, and you're looking at $210 to $220 million a year."
That will cost Fort Erie another 240 jobs, on the heels of its losing nearly 300 jobs with the end of the slots.
That leaves people like horse owner-trainer Claudia Rabstein with the problem of moving out. "We don't know how we'll sell our house," she told the Niagara Falls Review. "Who wants to move to Fort Erie with no track?"
Fort Erie's future could lie with the Canadian Motor Speedway, a proposed $400 million, 65,000-seat stadium off the Queen Elizabeth Way, which could attract visitors from far off. An Ontario Municipal Board hearing for zoning laws relating to the speedway is set for June 18.
Certainly, townsfolk haven't lost their spirit. Last winter they raised $33,000 for a charity in the name of local resident Alivia Vanderklei, who died at age 4 of neuroblastoma.
At the least, this summer Fort Erieans get to show off their refurbished fort, where Lake Erie meets the mouth of the Niagara River, which Winston Churchill once called the most scenic drive in the world with its winding road of willows, Canada geese and emerald waters building to a great crash over Niagara Falls, 30 kilometres downstream.
The river parkway also features a lovely bicycle trail and bygone sites such as the fabulous Erie Beach amusement park, one of northeastern America's playgrounds of the 1920s, and the still-operating Niagara Christian Community of Schools, bought by the Brethren-in-Christ Church from the Mafia for $13,000 in a paper bag in the early 1930s when Prohibition was repealed and the Yanks went home for the second time.
Slightly inland on Ridgemount Rd. is a cemetery for U.S. slaves who escaped the U.S. to Canada on the so-called Underground Railroad from 1793-1865.
One part of Greater Fort Erie flourishing of late is Ridgeway, with its picturesque downtown near Crystal Beach, which lost its popular amusement park in 1989.
Fort Erie does have a modern arena and town hall complex and a new police and ambulance station.