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Signs of downtown progress Proliferation of hotel projects deserves marketing, promotion support

Announced plans to turn the Dulski Federal Office Building downtown into hotel space would add to the available beds for Buffalo Niagara visitors, but the question remains: If it's built, will they come?

Developers now are betting yes -- a marked difference from the stagnation in development of recent years. The downtown housing boom now is being mirrored in hotel capacity increases that are beginning to look like an economic vote of confidence in the region's future. The Dulski project is just the latest project on a growing list.

Next year the privately-owned, mixed-use Dulski building will house an Embassy Suites Hotel of 150 rooms, according to the plans. British developer Bashar Issa plans to bring a hotel back to the Statler, opening about 150 rooms next summer and adding another 100 soon after. The Hyatt Regency soon will have some 400 renovated rooms, the Seneca Nation plans 250 hotel suites at the Buffalo Creek Casino and there may be a small hotel incorporated into the Bass Pro project. There's the possibility of a 43 percent increase in downtown hotel-room supply.

Developers, of course, will want to see a return on hotel development investment. The key to filling new hotel rooms and creating a demand for even more lies in a local commitment to build on this area's assets, including the waterfront, cultural tourism, sporting and arts events -- and then to fully fund efforts to market those attractions and events.

The focus should be on highlighting existing destinations and promoting such developing attractions as the Burchfield-Penney art gallery, the Michigan Avenue Heritage Corridor and the Erie Canal Harbor. The existing mechanism for such marketing depends on the so-called "bed tax," a large part of which was diverted to meet Erie County needs during the budget crisis but now needs to be rededicated to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Promoters of the Buffalo Niagara region must work diligently to create interest from outsiders in visiting this region and staying for more than one night. Such opportunities have been prevalent in the last couple of years through events such as the "March Madness" NCAA basketball tournament, the Buffalo Sabres' playoff runs and the Buffalo Bills, just to name the major sporting events unfolding here. The National Hockey League's upcoming outdoor Winter Classic at "the Ralph" is another prime example.

But marketing efforts for a wide range of year-round attractions and events have to be ramped up. The Convention and Visitors Bureau also has to spend dollars now to attract future conventions that can inject even more dollars into the local economy. That needs financing, as an investment in the future.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra's proposed budget would send the CVB roughly $3.3 million from the bed tax, up from about $2 million this year. It's a step in the right direction. Giambra also put in the budget about $5 million for capital improvements at the Convention Center. The Legislature has to approve those dollars in 2008 and work with the bureau and the new county executive toward full dedication of the bed tax -- believed to be about $7 million that will be generated next year -- to help close the spending gap with other nearby cities in the highly competitive regional promotion industry. Pittsburgh and Indianapolis already spend $10 million, Nashville spends $9.5 million and Baltimore spends $8.5 million. Buffalo would still be at a disadvantage, but there wouldn't be the huge disparity that currently exists in trying to market this city.

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