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The controversy over what to do with the last brick-box grain elevator on Buffalo's waterfront pits concerns for economic progress against the desire to preserve the city's architectural heritage.

Those conflicts were aired during a public hearing Thursday before the Buffalo Preservation Board. At issue is whether the Great Northern grain elevator at 250 Ganson St. should be designated a historical landmark.

"We do not intend to come in the dark of night and tear down a building that's under close public scrutiny," said Mark Norton, the local plant manager for the Pillsbury Co. He said the company is willing to delay plans to demolish the massive brick structure, which features grain storage bins, and work with preservation advocates.

John Conlin, director of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier and a member of the preservation board, called the building a "visible museum" of Buffalo's economic and historic heritage. The brick-enclosed grain elevator is one of two in the country -- the other is in Minneapolis -- and is the last of its kind on the city's waterfront.

"This is a very important building for us," said Scott Field, a board member of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County. "It's a place where people worked and where the city drew its wealth from."

However, Norton pointed out the building poses a health and safety risk to area residents because it is deteriorating. He said it would cost $2 million to shore up the building and correct hazards, not including further maintenance costs.

"It would cost upward of $20 million to put it back in operation as a flour mill," Norton said. He noted the facility does not meet the needs of the modern milling industry.

Asked about selling the property, Norton said, "Because of the close proximity to our flour mill, we would not be interested in selling to another company. We would not want a business operating next to us."

However, he said the company is open to alternatives. ". . . We will not disregard the public will," he said.

Norton also said Pillsbury recently started work on a $2.5 million modernization plan for its flour-mill facilities, and the existence of the grain elevator "forecloses any opportunity we may have to expand our operations in that direction."

Susan McCartney, president of the county preservation coalition said she hopes preserving the grain elevator can be accomplished through the "St. Mary of Sorrows model." She referred to the landmark Genesee Street church that was saved from the wrecking ball and converted to community use.

Built in 1898, the facility was designed as a transfer house for lake-to-rail shipments of grain to the Atlantic Coast.

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