The results of a much-anticipated study on a future convention center in downtown Buffalo were revealed Thursday. While delivering the results of the study, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and others shared the opinion that doing nothing is not an option if the region is to remain in the business of attracting meeting events, and the millions of dollars they bring.
The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center opened in 1978 and is, according to Poloncarz, the oldest active structure to not undergo a major renovation. He describes the building as a "dinosaur" compared to venues he has visited in other cities and said if Buffalo and Erie County want to remain in the business of hosting conventions, it will need to make a significant investment.
"If we want a state-of-the-art convention center that will draw new and bigger conventions, meetings and people from across the world, then doing nothing is not an option and then we will have to do a significant amount of infrastructure investment," he said.
That investment could range from nearly $300 million to as much as three quarters of a billion dollars, including spending on infrastructural changes.
The report released Thursday (click here for the county's summary and to download a PDF of the report) was prepared by HVS Convention, Sports and Entertainment. It recommends two options for a new convention center. One option is to expand the current site into the neighboring Statler.
"We envisioned involving the Statler Hotel as a connector between this building and a new structure between Delaware and Mohawk (Streets) that would provide primarily the exhibit space and the current building would be converted to ballroom and meeting space," said Thomas Hazinski of HSV.
The downside of the option, Hazinski added, is what he described as a lack of expansion potential. Vertical construction, he explained, is expensive.
The other option is to build a new facility where the HSBC Atrium currently stands, at Washington and Perry Streets adjacent to KeyBank Center and HarborCenter. This option, Hazinski explained, creates the possibility of designing an open floor plan that may be cheaper and easier to construct. The downside, he stated, is a more limited number of hotel rooms available within walking distance.
Poloncarz says downtown locations were the only ones under consideration. Other popular suggestions were deemed unsuitable.
"For those of you saying 'do it on the Outer Harbor, the area that is undeveloped,' that was not considered. 'Do it at Central Terminal.' That was not considered," Poloncarz said. "You don't have the entertainment, you don't have the hotels, you don't have the infrastructure, you don't have the ingress or egress at those facilities. The Medical Campus really doesn't have the ability that we'd like to put something large there without basically destroying entire neighborhoods."
There is also the choice to simply keep the existing facility and move forward. But local tourism leaders say that would further erode an industry that is already losing many would-be clients. Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara, says the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center was occupied 281 days in 2017, bringing more than a quarter-million people into the building. However, 783 events have turned Buffalo down over the past five years, resulting in losses of millions of dollars that would-be visitors would have spent.
Meeting planners coming to Buffalo get excited when they see the recent changes from economic redevelopment, he told reporters, but those planners become concerned when they see the existing convention space.
"We go to the new hotels, we show them the revitalized waterfront, then we bring them into the convention center and their excitement is diminished greatly," Kaler said. "Their first question is 'what are the plans? What are you going to be doing with this center?' This (study) at least gives us the first steps to say the county is looking at the possibilities of what we can do with this center."
The study has its critics. Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo suggests the county executive wasted $150,000 on a study that recommends two sites that had already been under consideration before the study was first commissioned.
"The possibility of expanding the current convention center into the Statler has been talked about since the 1990s," Lorigo said. "The possibility of going to Canalside has been talked about for the past five to seven years at least."
Lorigo also addressed the notion that doing nothing is not an option. When asked if the county could afford to maintain the status quo, he replied he didn't really know the answer but he does question the sense of urgency to get a new facility built.
"You can't have the county executive stand up and say the current convention center is functionally obsolete and then have the person who did the study get up there and say it's creating a $154 million annual economic impact. Obviously, it's not functionally obsolete," he said. "We want to compete with larger cities like Toronto and New York and Las Vegas for conventions but is that really what's holding us back? Or do those conventions want to go to those larger cities because there's more for them to do there?"
The next step is a 90-day public comment period. Poloncarz calls the upcoming decision one of the most important to the region in a long time.
Lorigo wants to see the matter brought to a referendum in 2019 but Poloncarz countered by suggesting New York State law does not allow for that option for projects such as this.