The City of Buffalo hopes art will succeed where beer and food could not.
After three unsuccessful attempts at a restaurant in the historic Market Arcade complex, the city wants to turn the space over to a consortium of arts groups.
CEPA Gallery, Big Orbit Gallery and the Just Buffalo Literary Center have been given six months to come up with a viable plan to turn the first floor of 623 Main St. into theater and exhibition space.
The organizations have been granted "designated developer" status while they explore the costs of converting the 8,000-square-foot ground floor.
Attorney Jim Rolls, president of the CEPA board of directors, said the groups expect to reach a decision by the end of April.
"We're in the process of putting together a business plan and feasibility study," Rolls said. "We've brought in an architect, and we've started to talk about how we would raise the funds to do this."
The Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse, the latest in a string of restaurants to operate at the location in the past decade, closed Sept. 17, after a three-year run. Rolls recently toured the site with Buffalo architect Ted Lownie and a representative for the New York State Arts Council.
A preliminary estimate of $300,000 has been made for retrofitting the complex into a cultural center with a theater, poetry and reading room, gallery space and the new location of Big Orbit's Sound Lab, currently in the basement of the Dunn Building, 110 Pearl St.
Rolls said the joint effort by the arts groups stems from an administrative collaboration that started last summer. In the face of shrinking arts dollars and common needs, Just Buffalo began sharing office space with CEPA at 617 Main St. Sean Donaher, Big Orbit's executive director, also is CEPA's artistic director.
The three groups received a $150,000 grant from the Oishei Foundation to study further collaboration.
CEPA and Just Buffalo are now next door to the empty restaurant space, sharing an internal entryway and elevator with the adjoining building.
"When Ya Ya closed in September, it seemed like a no-brainer. We had already been talking about moving from an administrative collaboration to exhibition space, and there it was, right next door," Rolls said.
The arts groups began conversations with Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's administration, and the city named them the designated developer. Timothy Wanamaker, president of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., which approved the arrangement with the arts groups, said considering a non-restaurant use makes sense.
Unlike a bar or restaurant, an arts center would not rely as heavily on daily foot or car traffic, since specific events drive much of the customer base, Wanamaker said. He also noted that plans to reopen that section of Main Street to car traffic also make finding a new use for the space timely.
In 1995, the city had signed a 20-year lease for the location with the Breckenridge Brew Pub. It closed in August 1998, saddling the city with $900,000 in lease and building improvement losses.
The city tried again with Empire Brewing Co. in 1999. Empire shut down without notice in February 2001, literally in the middle of the night.
Ya Ya then became the third restaurant to try and fail at the location.
The city expects to recoup some of its losses when it sells off the restaurant and bar equipment.