Hollywood filmmakers are looking at Buffalo's biggest white elephant and envisioning a makeover that could land a major movie, television and musical production complex downtown.
Memorial Auditorium, vacant since the opening of HSBC Arena five years ago, is at the center of a $25 million proposal that filmmakers and City Hall officials have discussed in meetings over the past three weeks.
The two sides agree that the proposal is only in the talking stage now, and they stress that hurdles stand in the way.
But the filmmakers sought out the city in this venture, and they are excited about the possibilities of turning the facility into a media production center. It could employ 250 full-time workers and provide work for about 9,750 freelance performers, directors and production personnel, according to a five-year projection prepared by the filmmakers.
Could Buffalo snare enough business to make a one-stop shop for entertainment-based production economically viable?
A local tourism official who has served as a liaison to dozens of out-of-town production companies in recent years thinks so.
"With a little nurturing, I think this type of facility could have significant potential," said Mary E. Summers, director of communications for the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau. "We've seen quite a few productions come in here over the years with absolutely no marketing on our part."
Project advocates said the region's talent pool, unusual venues and geographic location would be powerful marketing tools for generating business in a major production facility. Economic factors would also give a Buffalo-based studio a competitive edge, said Thomas A. Mauro, an Amherst-based building consultant.
"What makes this feasible is that Buffalo isn't a New York City or an L.A.," said Mauro. The facility could be built and operated here for a fraction of what it would cost in one of the nation's major film centers, he said. The fact that Memorial Auditorium is located in a state Economic Development/Empire Zone makes the project even more attractive, Mauro added.
The biggest question is whether Buffalo Studios -- as the project is dubbed -- can co-exist in the Aud with an urban entertainment center planned by Cordish & Co., a Baltimore-based developer.
Joseph Weinberg, executive vice president for Cordish, said developers are open to discussing the concept.
"Things are very preliminary at this point, but this concept could be integrated into our plans," said Weinberg.
Vincent J. LoVallo, Masiello's chief of staff, said he met with Buffalo Studios advocates twice in recent weeks. Officials from Buffalo Studios also have met with development experts at the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's main development agency.
"We're taking a serious look at the proposal," said LoVallo. "A lot of it hinges on whether there can be a marriage between this concept and the urban entertainment center that's being planned by Cordish."
Sources close to the negotiations said several out-of-town executives with current or previous ties to corporations such as Universal Pictures, MCA/Universal Studios and Polygram would own the studio. Preliminary estimates put construction and operating costs at $25 million, with another $12 million set aside for possible cost overruns and expansion.
Insiders said financing is a major issue, though developers have told the city that they already have lined up investors.
Mauro said he has been helping to facilitate discussions between the West Coast executives and local officials.
"I would love to see this be built in Buffalo," said Mauro. "The Aud would be a perfect spot for this kind of project."
The city is working with Cordish to transform the Aud into an urban entertainment mecca that might include a children's museum, live entertainment, shops, restaurants and other attractions aimed at luring people downtown. The project, which includes a proposed transportation center, recently received more than $6 million in federal funding.
Mauro said the fact that plans are so far along with Cordish has spurred parties involved in the studio project to pitch the concept to other localities. He said there have also been preliminary talks with officials in Niagara Falls, Rochester and the Binghamton area.
"The next step is for officials in (Buffalo) City Hall to tell us whether they're interested," said Mauro. "While we're waiting, we need to explore other options."