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A free park-and-ride shuttle will make its downtown debut Oct. 1 as part of the city's long-term plan to lure new tenants into the central business district.

Directors of Buffalo Place Inc. unanimously approved the pilot program Wednesday, tapping $350,000 in funds that have been earmarked for the shuttle in the new city budget.

Workers will be transported from a parking lot on Perry Street near Marine Midland Arena to convenient drop-off sites that stretch north to Huron Street. The three-mile loop will be serviced by 22-seat buses and planners said riders will reach their destinations within five to 10 minutes.

Three private operators have submitted bids to provide the service and an operator will be selected within the next week.

David Sweet, a downtown landlord who chairs the agency's Parking Steering Committee, said an existing shuttle program that provides park-and-ride service for $19 per month is "a good start," but has not been as successful as planners had hoped. He said 300 people take part in a program that officials hope will attract up to 1,500 downtown workers.

The shuttle will run on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. until 6:00 p.m.

A recent survey indicated that 47 percent of all downtown workers would be inclined to park on the fringes of downtown if free shuttle service were provided. Officials said the shuttle will have a spin-off benefit, freeing up spots in crowded parking ramps for short-term users or new downtown tenants.

In other action, planners have selected a Columbus, Ohio, consultant to prepare a market research study that gauges the demand for downtown housing. The Danter Co. has performed real estate studies in 49 states and recently did residential market reports for Rochester, and for Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio.

Buffalo Place Associate Director Ann E. Conable said the study will be done by Oct. 1.

"Downtown has never had a residential study done as it relates to possible target audiences, the type of residential housing that is in demand and price ranges for these units. The consultants will identify the market and tell us what we need to do to make it happen," she said.

Mayor Masiello said efforts to encourage residential development and provide free parking to downtown commuters are critical to downtown's future. He told Buffalo Place board members that they shouldn't conclude that "things are bad" downtown just because there have been temporary setbacks.

He was apparently referring to the recent closing of the Breckenridge Brew Pub in the Theater District, an establishment that received a $600,000 city loan.

"There will be some mistakes, problems and closings. But things are getting better. There's a new sense of optimism for downtown," Masiello said.

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