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EXISTING FACILITY STILL HOSTS EVENTS, HAS A LIST OF NEEDS

As planners scramble for state funding to help build a new $124.5 million convention center at a downtown site, managers of the existing facility have launched their own funding expedition.

Noting that the 20-year-old building will continue to host events for at least the next four years, members of Buffalo Convention Center Management Board want Erie County officials to find more money to meet some basic capital needs.

The county earmarked $1 million to the convention center in the 1999 budget, $250,000 less than the board's request. Managers warned that the reduced subsidy will make it impossible to repair chairs, replace aging tables and purchase other furniture and equipment that are deemed essential if the facility is to continue hosting tens of thousands of visitors.

"We can't afford to just hold our own during the period when the community plans for a new facility," said Clint Brown, the board's vice chairman. "We have to attract new people."

Last year, Brown coordinated a comprehensive review of capital needs and devised a list of $3.47 million in improvements that the facility would need to keep it competitive through 2003, the year the new convention center is targeted to open.

Included on the 70-item list are some high-cost requests such as roof and ceiling repairs, electrical work and landscaping.

Board Chairman Dan Kohane said it's understandable why county officials are reluctant to invest in a center with a limited shelf life.

"The county doesn't want to spend large sums of money for equipment and fixtures that can't be used in the new facility. But we have to make sure the center can meet some basic needs, just like any other business."

The board will ask the county for a supplemental appropriation to help finance additional capital projects this year. During the budget process that wrapped up last month, County Executive Gorski said his administration would "do the best it can" to make sure the old facility remains competitive during the transition.

Kohane has been an ardent supporter of efforts to build a new 388,000-square-foot convention center on Washington Street between the Electric Building and the Central Library. The facility is expected to have an annual economic impact of nearly $59 million, about $36 million more than the existing center.

But Kohane noted that the plan poses some short-term dilemmas for the existing center.

"We know that once we put a spade in the ground, there will be some groups who will be reluctant to come to town until the new facility is built. We expect to see a drop-off in business," Kohane said.

Officials from the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau agreed that it will be more difficult to convince some meeting planners to hold conventions here before the new center opens in 2003. To offset what is likely to be a drop in convention revenue, marketers plan to become more aggressive in trying to snare business from local groups.

Trade shows can be a major revenue stream, but the downtown facility has lost some big events to a suburban competitor. Convention Center Director Melvin P. Florczak said at least five major trade shows have been lost to the International Agri-Center in Hamburg over the past two years. Organizers of a recreational vehicle show, train show, golf show and other events have opted for the Hamburg venue.

Florczak blames a weekday parking shortage for the lost business, a problem that was verified by the head of an organization that sponsors the annual Auto Show at the Buffalo Convention Center.

"The cost of the parking downtown is probably the No. 1 complaint that we hear," said Richard K. Welte, president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association.

A number of long-term strategies have been informally discussed, including the possible construction of another downtown parking ramp. Last month, CVB President Richard Geiger urged planners to examine the feasibility of transforming the long-vacant Memorial Auditorium into an indoor parking facility.

Some insiders expressed doubts about the plan, noting that such a conversion could be cost-prohibitive. But others said using the mammoth structure for secured indoor parking, then shuttling patrons to the convention center, could help ease downtown's parking crunch.

Geiger said until a permanent developer proposes a plan for the Aud site, he thinks the parking option might be viable.

"(People) could leave their coats in their cars on the coldest winter days, hop on the shuttle and be driven right into the back entrance of the Convention Center," he said.