When the beer poured down the sewers, it was a dark day indeed. Remember when the Breckenridge Brewery in the Market Arcade complex folded, and all that beer had to be dumped?
It ranks as one of Buffalo's great disasters, not quite up there with McKinley being shot, but close.
Alas, the Market Arcade buildings on Main Street downtown have always been a problem. Back in the '90s, they cost millions to restore. The Market Arcade movie theater has had more than its share of ups and downs. And the adjoining restaurant space -- first the Breckenridge, then the Empire Brewing Co., and the recently failed Ya Ya Bayou Brewhouse -- has proved even trickier.
"The Market Arcade complex is like the obelisk in Niagara Square," says James Militello of J.R. Militello Realty, who was involved in the buildings' restoration. "It's pretty to look at, but it's not too functional."
Well, now I think I know what the Market Arcade needs. Time.
Here's what clued me in. Thursday, Shea's Performing Arts Center celebrated its 80th birthday with a Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concert.
It was a rainy night, but Main Street was alive. The marquee's lights reflected in the wet sidewalks, and the crowds hurrying inside reminded me of old photos I'd seen of when Buffalo was in its heyday. And suddenly, it was clear:
The city is on its way back.
I remember when Shea's was almost knocked down. Now, the memory of the dilapidated place seems like a dream.
Just recently, I used to wince at the Red Jacket building at Main and Allen. The 1894 landmark looked so scummy, with its dingy corner store surrounded by loiterers. Now, the store is gone. A crew is at the Red Jacket every morning, turning it back into the elegant apartment house it once was.
I'm not cheerleading. I'm just stating what I see. Maybe it's the result of our burgeoning new medical corridor -- a great sign of economic growth, by the way, that doomsayers consistently ignore -- but city buildings that once looked hopeless are now hot.
We used to dream of the day the L.L. Berger's store would turn into living space. Lo, it came to pass, with the Bellasario. The Sidway Building and the renovated Asbury Methodist Church triumphed over blight. Even the long-languishing building at Main and Mohawk that housed that double-decker McDonald's is looking good. An architecture firm bought it and is planning a restaurant for its first floor.
True, public money went into some of these projects. But for once, we have something solid, something made of bricks and mortar, to show for our bucks. Good things lead to more good things. We are on our way.
The latest plans for the Market Arcade call for the thorny restaurant space to be turned over to the CEPA Gallery, Big Orbit Sound Lab and Just Buffalo Literary Center. It's not a perfect solution. We'd prefer taxpaying businesses to nonprofits.
Still, it's a good step.
"I think it will fit well with the Theater District, with the Market Arcade Theatre, with the Alleyway Theatre that was just completed," says Michael Schmand of Buffalo Place, the downtown advocacy group.
Most importantly, the complex will be occupied, safe from negligent landlords and ready for its role in a revitalized city.
"Better to have it used than to keep it vacant," Militello says.
"There's a difference between the cost to renovate and rebuild, and the daily cost to keep the doors open. It's a lot easier just to keep it open. If not-for-profits can help bear that cost, that keeps the buildings alive until circumstances may change."
Which could be sooner than you think.
See and believe. And toast the future.
Where is that beer when we need it?