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Erie County officials mum on site options for convention center

Consultants want to examine additional sites to relocate the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, but some Erie County legislators say they are disturbed that no one will say where the possible locations might be.

Most legislators have said they're willing to approve spending $65,000 – on top of the $150,000 earmarked last year – to study the market and four possible locations for a bigger and better convention center. The expense is likely to be approved this month, though legislators want to discuss the matter further in committee.

One of the options: Expand the convention center at its existing site.

But given the limitations of the current Franklin Street location, consultants want to consider more options to build elsewhere. All of the locations would be in Buffalo and in proximity to downtown, officials told The Buffalo News.

Legislators spent more than 30 minutes at their informal Thursday morning caucus meeting grilling representatives of the convention center and the county's Department of Environment and Planning about where the potential sites might be located and where the money might come from to pay for a new convention center.

"This is the time," said Legislator Thomas Loughran, who added that he turned down an offer to speak privately about the convention center study with the County Executive's Office. "Full disclosure."

'Outdated' convention center puts Buffalo at a disadvantage

But officials were mum, saying that such disclosure would be used by land speculators to drive up costs. The site information will only be made public when the study is complete. Last month, a News request to broadly identify neighborhoods or even indicate whether locations would be limited to Buffalo were denied by Kenneth Swanekamp, director of the Erie County Office of Economic Development.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, was so incensed that he had a Freedom of Information Law request drawn up on the spot to try and compel the Department of Environment and Planning to disclose the locations under consideration. A spokesman for the County Executive's Office responded by pointing out that such real estate transactions are exempt from disclosure under FOIL.

Lorigo subsequently submitted a second FOIL request seeking all written communications regarding the proposed convention center study.

Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler, Convention Center Director Paul Murphy and Planning Commissioner Thomas R. Hersey Jr. told The News that just like with previous studies, a new or upgraded convention center would need to be located in close proximity to existing hotels and restaurants, which are concentrated downtown.

The county earmarked $500,000 for all studies associated with the building of a new convention center in 2014. Last year, the Legislature agreed to pay $150,000 to Chicago-based HVS Consulting for a study that would analyze the market and rough out an ideal convention center size and features. The study was also to consider the extent to which those needs could be met by overhauling and expanding the existing Buffalo Niagara Convention Center in downtown Buffalo or considering one alternate location.

The additional $65,000 being considered by the Legislature would allow HVS Consulting to evaluate two more alternative convention center locations.

Some members of the Republican-supported majority, as well as Loughran, said the county is asking for a lot of money but providing too little information to satisfy legislators. But other Democratic legislators said that in order to avoid the mistakes of the past, investing in good planning makes sense.

Moreover, they said, there was no way they could ask the state for any funding support toward a new convention center if the county has no study to show what a new or upgraded convention center would look like and where it would possibly go.

Kaler pointed out that the state has committed huge sums to other convention centers in the state, but that no such commitment of money could be made to Erie County without a plan in hand. County officials also stated that the secrecy regarding alternate convention center sites is temporary. Once the report is completed, which should be within a few months, all information regarding potential sites will be disclosed.

When asked why county leaders won't disclose sites immediately when they will eventually be made public, Hersey said the county plans to first share a draft of the report findings with state and city leaders to see if the county can gain buy in and support for a preferred location.

"Obviously, there's other partners on this," he said.

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