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BALLROOM OPERATOR, STATLER ENDING DEAL

The Statler Golden Ballroom, a popular wedding reception and social event venue in downtown Buffalo, will go dark at the end of March due to a lease renewal dispute.

Gerald A. Buchheit, owner of the Statler Towers, confirmed he has terminated his relationship with Samuel's Grande Manor, which has leased the building's historic ballroom and two adjacent banquet rooms for more than a decade.

"Their lease expired a month and a half ago, and we've been unable to come to terms," Buchheit said. "We couldn't reach a contract we both could live with. It's as simple as that."

Mark Fromholt, Samuel's catering manager, declined to discuss the status of the popular celebration spot, citing the advice of the company's legal counsel.

The Statler Towers owner declined to discuss sticking points in the lease extension talks, but said negotiations have been going on for several months. While the lease expired at the end of 2000, Samuel's has continued to host parties, luncheons and wedding receptions as talks continued.

Buchheit, who originally ordered Samuel's to immediately cease operation at the 107 Delaware Ave. location, relented today, and agreed to allow the caterer to honor event obligations through the end of March.

"After thinking about it, it didn't make sense for their clients to suffer, it's not their fault," he said. "It would have been unfairly short notice for people who were counting on having their events here."

Buchheit's change of heart is very welcome news for organizers of the 9th Annual Diamond Ball, a gala to support the Western New York and Finger Lakes Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, scheduled for the ballroom on Feb. 24.

The group, which has held its annual gala fund-raiser at the ballroom since 1992, had not been contacted by Samuel's indicating the event was canceled as of late Thursday. The group kept its collective fingers crossed that something could be worked out.

"We are relieved and very excited," said Luann Burgio, of the Leukemia group. "We're grateful to Jerry Buchhheit and (the owners of Samuel's) on behalf of our patients and our mission to fight leukemia, lymphoma and other blood-related cancers. This will be our best Diamond Ball ever."

The falling out between Statler management and its long-time banquet room operator still leaves an unknown number of brides-to-be and event planners in limbo. Samuel's began contacting affected clients early this week, giving them bad news that spawned a flood of calls to alternative caterers and banquet halls.

The Adam's Mark Hotel, Hyatt Regency Buffalo and Rich Products Atrium, all reported fielding many calls in the past few days as frantic event planners sought alternative venues for spring and summer parties and receptions.

Geoffrey Reeds, the Hyatt's director of marketing, said the downtown hotel will attempt to fit in some of the displaced parties, but it's difficult to make room with short notice.

"Wedding receptions are generally planned 12 to 18 months out," Reeds said. "Right after the marriage proposal is accepted, the first two things you do are secure a site for the ceremony, and book the reception venue."

The exit of Samuel's from the Statler has also sent organizers of the Williamsville South High School Junior Prom back to phone book to find an alternative site for the May 18 event.

Eric Dobies, a faculty adviser to the class, said the group has identified several potential sites in the wake of Wednesday's call from Samuel's.

"There are many possibilities. We're not panicking," Dobies said.

The owners of Samuel's Grande Manor have staged hundreds of events, everything from wedding receptions to bar mitzvahs to political fund-raisers, in the 80-year-old ballroom since leasing the high-profile space in 1990. Charles Pezzino, president of the family-owned business, invested more than $250,000 to rehabilitate the faded ballroom which had sat idle since the 1970s.

"This room is so exciting," Pezzino said in a 1990 Buffalo News interview. "To replace a room like this would cost millions. It's like the Plaza in New York, or the Waldorf. The workmanship here is workmanship you'll never see again."

The Clarence restaurateur attracted so much business to the venue, that it added the hotel-turned-office building's Rendezvous and Embassy Rooms to its menu, creating a downtown party portfolio that could accommodate up to 1,400 guests, in 13,000-square-feet.

Buchheit said he has already had preliminary contact with potential replacements for Samuel's, with the hope of reopening the banquet facilities as soon as possible.

One local caterer who is interested in talking with the Statler about filling the void predicted a lot of competition for the lease.

"It's a one of kind venue. The Statler, particularly the ballroom, is an A-list location for the Buffalo area. There's going to be a lot of interest in running it," the catering veteran said.

The historic ballroom and its adjoining banquet rooms are among the last vestiges of an era in which the Statler served as the flagship structure of the Ellsworth Statler hotel group. The building began its metamorphosis from hotel to office building in the 1960s, and it welcomed its last hotel guest in 1982.

For the past two decades the building has weathered a string of owners and growing vacancy rate. The 17-story building is about 80 percent occupied, not counting the three floors which have never been converted to offices from their hotel room days.

"It's no secret we're having a tough time downtown," Buchheit said. "We keep losing tenants to the suburbs."

Despite that exodus, the building has found a growing tenant base in government offices, including the New York State Attorney General's Office and the Workers Compensation Board.

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