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Opponents of a central downtown site for the proposed new convention center can push for their alternative waterfront location at public hearings expected later this year.

Citizens for Common Sense, a grass-roots group organized recently to lobby against a Mohawk Street location, met this week with representatives of the county task force that endorsed the site for the $124.5 million project last November.

"They seem committed to a real, public dialogue, and that was encouraging," said Mark Goldman, owner of the Calumet Arts Cafe and a leader of Citizens for Common Sense. "Although they believe that's the best place, they're going to have hearings."

The grass-roots group, which has raised $10,000 so far, maintains that the 388,000-square-foot convention center proposed for a four-block area along Washington Street between Huron and Mohawk streets will displace businesses and demolish buildings that could be reused for housing.

They are pushing for a convention center to be built on what they call the Lehigh Valley site, a two-block employee parking lot for the HSBC Atrium Building along South Park Avenue near the Marine Midland Arena.

Richard M. Tobe, county commissioner for planning and a task force member, said that he and the panel's chairman, Deputy County Executive James P. Keane, outlined their case for the Mohawk site and promised opponents there would be an open debate.

"We offered to establish a schedule for future meetings and offered to listen to them in more detail," Tobe said.

The public hearings required for the environmental review on the convention center will be scheduled once the county hires consultants, Tobe said. Those hearings are expected by late fall and will include other locations examined and rejected by the panel, including the waterfront site advocated by Citizens for Common Sense.

The task force said the Mohawk site was chosen because it can be linked to the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, a convention-class hotel. Building a center elsewhere, according to consultants, would require a new hotel that would need substantial public subsidies.

The panel also said the Mohawk site offers the best opportunity for further development of the West Chippewa/Theater District area and has good access from the Elm/Oak Corridor. It also has space nearby for future expansion and additional hotel construction.

Despite the meeting's cordial tone, Goldman said he and fellow grass-roots leaders John Nussbaumer, co-owner of Lake George Forest Products; Tim Tielman, executive director of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County; and Chris Jacobs, president of the BISON Fund, remain unconvinced.

"We came away with a sense this is a battle we could win," he said. "We believe there is no grass-roots support for this at all and it's coming from the top down."

The Mohawk site does have the strong backing of the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau, Buffalo Place and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. Mayor Masiello, County Executive Gorski and Robert Wilmers, president and CEO of M&T Bank, also support the plan.

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