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BLANK MESSAGE BOARD LEAVES DOWNTOWN AT LOSS FOR WORDS

The Buffalo Convention Center's message board is dead, and no one wants to claim the body.

For more than a month, Buffalo Convention Center managers have used their best detective skills to try to find out who actually owns the non-functioning message board that towers over the facility on Franklin Street near West Genesee Street, between the center and the Statler.

They must pinpoint ownership before launching a renovation that might involve the sale of "naming rights" for the marquee.

The Convention Center board has directed attorneys to dig through dusty records and make calls to government leaders, hoping to find some answers. But with every dry lead, board chairman Dan D. Kohane grows more impatient.

"We just found William McKinley's death certificate. We should be able to find out who owns this thing," said Kohane.

Put up for about $217,000 at the same time that the convention center was built in 1978, the 25-foot-high illuminated message board has been plagued with problems for a decade.

Convention Center Director Melvin P. Florczak said staffers used "Band-Aid approaches" to repair it until about nine months ago when it finally died.

Convention Center officials want to refurbish the message board, noting that it's a high-profile promotional tool and illuminates Franklin Street in the evening. Florczak has found a company that claims it can design a new light board, provide state-of-the-art software and produce art work in three colors. But first, planners have to find the owner.

Common Council President James Pitts, who calls the structure Buffalo's "space needle," chuckled when he heard that efforts to find ownership papers were like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

"I guess it doesn't surprise me. This is the same board I read about over the weekend where its chairman was quoted as saying that planners don't have to pick a site before trying to secure state aid for a new convention center," said Pitts. He was referring to comments that Kohane made in response to concerns that the state might rebuff a request to earmark funds in this year's budget for a new $98.5 million facility.

But Pitts conceded that some of the confusion was understandable because the facility was a joint project between Erie County and the city.

"It was a strange animal right from the start. I suppose the problems with the space needle are a result of that joint agreement," he said.

After being contacted about the situation, Pitts tested his own investigative skills. Within a half hour, he found a series of bills passed by the Common Council in 1978 that conveys a license to the county to erect a ground sign. The license remains in effect for the life of the Convention Center. While he's no legal eagle, Pitts thinks the documents prove that the county owns the message board, even though it is on the city's rights-of-way.

Scott Brown, a spokesman for County Executive Gorski, said the office was unaware of the message board mystery until Monday. He said Gorski will rely on recommendations from the Convention Center board. But Gorski has made it clear he does not want to pay for the renovations with county funds.

Florczak hopes to meet soon with officials from Daktronics Inc., a South Dakota electronics company, to discuss a renovation that is likely to cost $100,000. He said officials shouldn't delay, even though a new center could be built at another site within the next few years.

"My concern is getting the darn thing fixed. Once we get the legal OK, we hope to find a corporate underwriter to foot the cost," Florczak said.

Under the tentative plan, a corporation would be allowed to put its name and logo on all four sides of the message board in exchange for a long-term contract that would finance all repairs. If a single sponsor can't be found, Florczak said two underwriters might be approached to share the costs and space.

He was pleased to learn late Monday that the Common Council president had apparently solved the dilemma.

Pitts said he was pleased to help.

"This space needle has been needling people for too long," he said.

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