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The community debate over where a new convention center should be built is intensifying with major business groups backing the Mohawk site in central downtown and grass-roots opponents sharpening their argument in favor of the waterfront.

In the meantime, momentum for the $124.5 million proposal is slowing significantly on the political front.

The Gorski administration has pushed back its timetable for public hearings on the location issue, saying they won't occur until after the November election and probably not until after the first quarter of the new year. Hearings had been expected later this fall.

County Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo said it is likely that engineering and architectural consultants won't be hired until after Jan. 1. Loffredo said once the consultants are on board, it will probably take another three months before public hearings are scheduled.

The new timetable is a shift from the fall schedule county officials had talked about earlier this month and follows recent polls showing County Executive Gorski trailing his opponent, City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra, in his re-election bid.

Giambra questioned the Mohawk site for the convention center last summer, saying the waterfront site -- behind the HSBC Atrium Building at Washington and Perry streets, favored by opponents -- should be given a closer look.

The Mohawk site runs along Washington Street from Huron to Mohawk. The 388,000-square-foot convention center would front Washington and stretch back 1 1/2 blocks, over Ellicott Street, with access from the Elm-Oak corridor.

Although Giambra later said his concerns had been addressed by Mohawk supporters, notably the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau, the uncertain signals may be playing a role in the delay in hiring a consultant.

Keith Belanger, chairman of the Buffalo Place board, said he would like to see the planning for the proposed convention center move along at a "brisker pace."

"It isn't a Gorski project or Masiello project -- it's a Western New York project," he said.

The Buffalo Place board plans to endorse the Mohawk site when it meets Wednesday. The organization assesses a special fee on property owners and uses the money to keep downtown attractive and promote activities aimed at bringing people into the city center.

The Buffalo Place resolution states the Mohawk site had been chosen last November following a six-month study by a task force of government and business representatives. The group reviewed previous consultant reports and looked at several sites, including the waterfront.

The resolution described the Mohawk site as a "downtown-positive" location that includes exceptional vehicular access, close proximity to Main Street, downtown entertainment venues, public transportation, restaurants, the Hyatt Regency Buffalo and offers future expansion opportunities.

A similar resolution was approved by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership board last week. The Partnership is the premier business organization in the area.

None of the high-level endorsements however has deterred Citizens for Common Sense, a grass-roots opposition group, from pushing for their waterfront site.

John Nussbaumer, one of the group's leaders, said they are about to release a report describing the economic loss that would occur should employers in the four-block Mohawk area be displaced by a new convention center.

"They're tearing down buildings in an area that's economically viable and replacing it with something that will be empty half the year," Nussbaumer said.

Among the tenants that would have to be demolished to make way for the project are the six-story Educational Opportunity Center operated by the University at Buffalo, Holling Press, Catholic Charities, the Urban League, Manhattan Bagel, Ferguson Electric and Mohawk Place.

Group members have been meeting weekly to plot their strategy and have raised $10,000 so far. Nussbaumer said they plan to bring in several outside consultants who have expertise in convention center planning. "We'll probably be hitting the issue more aggressively now than two or three weeks ago," he said. "Nothing that's been said has changed our minds."

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