Ambiguity clouds future in downtown Buffalo convention center discussion

Mar 14, 2019

The results of a 90-day public comment period on the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center Market Analysis and Feasibility study show 86 percent of those who responded to an online survey were in favor of investing in to a new convention center.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz (left) and Visit Buffalo Niagara President & CEO Patrick Kaler field convention center questions.
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

What surprised Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz was the 64 percent of them that said they had no preference on where a future site would be located.

“If we want to stay in the convention business doing nothing is not an option,” said Poloncarz.

When looking at potential locations, Poloncarz said they drilled down 5 semi-finalists and then two finalists:

  • An expanded location in the current facility
  • Anew center in the waterfront district on Perry and Scott Street near KeyBank Center.  

Poloncarz said they have to take look at key variables before looking at next site, including utilities, water sewer loads and existing structures that may have environmental issues/asbestos.

Over $250,000 dollars in a bonded account is set to be used for future studies.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

“And our goal is to go out by the end of this month with an RFP to hire a consultant to do a strong deep analysis to both sites and the current facility to determine if the current facility is really worth in some ways investing all this new money potentially at the new site. Would we have to invest hundreds of millions just in the current facility with regards to the infrastructure, the HVAC and other issues that exist with it,” Poloncarz said.

There’s also a potential third option to consider.

“There’s a proposal out there from Mark Croce with regards to a different type of version,” Poloncarz said. “Could the current facility even sustain what he proposes? Because he basically talks about putting a new layer on top of the existing facility. We don’t know if structurally the facility can even do that.”

With all of this talk regarding public support for a new convention center, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily feasible. Poloncarz said Erie County couldn’t fund a project on their own and would need help from the state and others.

“We will be seeking legislative approval to support this RFP to hire a consultant to do this analysis that’s necessary to now determine whether, or even if both sites (are viable). They could come back and find out that neither site really works well.”

An ideal timeline according to Poloncarz would look like this:

  • Issue RFP by end of March.
  • Have a proposal due by late April to select the consultant by late May.
  • In early June, there would be legislative approval of the consultant, who would work between mid-June to mid-December.

“This would be pretty condensed and a compressed timeline for this type of analysis to have a final report by late December,” said Poloncarz.

While this process continues to move forward, Visit Buffalo Niagara President and CEO Patrick Kaler said meeting planners across the country are taking their business elsewhere.

Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo believes it is important to include a new football stadium in the convention center conversation.
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO News

“Well they’re wondering, ‘Why would I bring my meeting to Buffalo at this time when in the future you may have a new convention center or what does that mean for us if things are under construction?’ So it has posed a new hurdle for us to now look at as far as bringing new business to our community,” he said.

Kaler added they have lost over 800 pieces of business over the last five years due to the small nature of the convention center as well as its aging state.

However, some members of the Erie County Legislature think this process is moving too fast.

Legislator Lynne Dixon said she doesn’t think 668 respondents in a County of almost one million people makes it a mandate to go ahead pushing for a new convention center.

“What if we took a half billion dollars and invested in the city and Western New York and made it more of a destination so that more conventions would like to come here? I think right now we have put this question out there, would you like a new convention center? Sure. Of course we would. But at what cost? And that question still hasn’t been answered,” Dixon said.

Could a convention center help make Buffalo a destination? Kaler thinks so.

“I think that we are on the brink point of really doing some fantastic things for our community and one of the things is meetings and conventions and events in our destination. And what’s holding us back right now is our convention center,” Kaler said.

Dixon said while downtown Buffalo is experiencing a resurgence, there are negative factors that publically need to be addressed.

“I know when there was a study done that looked at why conventions are not coming here, it also said Buffalo is not considered a destination,” she said. “It took in to account the weather. It took in to the account that you can’t get direct flights here very often. There are a number of factors that go in to why conventions don’t come to Buffalo as often as we’d like to see”

The 90 day public comment period drew criticism from Legislator Joseph Lorigo, who said he wants a much longer timeline.

“Find out what it’s going to cost. Find out what our options are with expanding the current site. Find out what are options with expanding the current site. Find out what our options are with renovating the one that we have and get as much public input as we possibly can for at least a year,” Lorigo said.

For Lorigo and Dixon, it wasn’t about saying no to a new convention center, but taking more time to get public feedback once more accurate financial projections are determined.

“I think we have a number of priorities,” said Dixon. “There have been talks about a number of things over the years. The Peace Bridge, the Skyway, the rail system, convention center, (a) stadium and the list goes on. So where are our priorities? Is the convention center a number one priority?”

Poloncarz was asked about how a new football stadium downtown would impact a future convention center, but didn’t want to talk about that possibility.

“Talk to the Bills,” Poloncarz said. “I have lots of conversations with the Bills but nobody likes to talk to them and when they answer a question, (the media) don’t like their answer so they don’t like to report it.”

The Bills lease with Erie County currently expires in 2023. Last fall, the team hired a consultant to identify possible sites for a new stadium and if public money would be involved.

Poloncarz released a statement in response saying, “I look forward to continuing to serve in the role as chief negotiator for the county during these discussions.”

This past January the Bills sent out surveys to fans asking, ‘Where do you think the best location would be if the Bills were to build a new stadium?’

One of the options was downtown.

But when it comes to downtown, Poloncarz said they don’t have a lot of land options.

“I think you all know the history of this community if we go in there and we say we are going to knock down three blocks of buildings. It’s never going to happen. We couldn’t build a companion span to the Peace Bridge because of birds,” he said. “I don’t want to create a process that goes on and on and on so that nothing ever happens.”

Lorigo still believes it is important to have a conversation about a future football stadium during this process.

“Whether it’s a conversation about combining a convention center and a stadium, or it’s a conversation about putting two new huge venues in the downtown Buffalo area. We should be talking about it,” said Lorigo. “I’ve never been a big supporter of spending tax payer dollars on professional sports, but we should at least have the Pegulas as part of the conversation and the County Executive should be willing to talk about that publically rather than just telling you all to go pound salt.”

For now, Poloncarz plans to push ahead in identifying a future location.

“I think we’ve taken our time with regards to whether we should be moving forward and the answer overwhelmingly from my administration and I think the public now is yes,” Poloncarz said.