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CENTER OPERATORS DETAIL REASONS FOR LAG IN BOOKINGS

High costs, the age of the Convention and Civic Center and competition with Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena were cited by operators Monday as reasons for sluggish bookings at the 25-year-old facility.

But City Council members, who had requested the status report from Niagara Falls Redevelopment and Ogden Entertainment, which are operating the center, remained skeptical.

In response to Council concerns about a lack of new bookings and general lack of cleanliness in restrooms and common areas, the operators cited the facility's age, a need for an estimated $35 million in capital improvements and a 54 percent reduction in city employees over the past seven years. Vernon Giscombe, Ogden's executive director of the center, also said the competition with the new, state-of-the-art Marine Midland Arena puts the 25-year-old Niagara Falls center at a disadvantage with concert and entertainment promoters.

The situation is further compounded by high labor costs and the center's size -- 9,000 seats compared with the arena's 18,000 -- according to Anthony Bergamo and Roger Trevino of Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

"You're disappointed in the facility, labor costs and number of employees. Didn't you know all this before you took over?" asked Councilwoman Barbara A. Geracitano.

Niagara Falls Redevelopment exercised its option to manage the center a year ago, with promises of increased bookings, more local events, packages with Casino Niagara and the biggest millennium New Year's Eve party in the world, none of which materialized. Bergamo said the New Year's Eve party got nowhere because there were only 4,000 seats available, and former Mayor James C. Galie and his administration didn't respond to Bergamo's request to allocate them. He repeated the promise of a big bash this Dec. 31.

In August, the redevelopment group signed Ogden to fulfill its contract requirement to bring in a nationally recognized operator for the center. When it took over the center, the redevelopment group had released SMG, which operated the center under a direct contract with the city for 11 years. While Council members felt the center was underutilized, they generally felt that SMG had done a creditable job. A year later, they said, they are disappointed they have not seen the increased activity that was promised.

"Last January, there was some concern about (Niagara Falls Redevelopment) taking over. The consensus at the time was there wasn't much activity, and the convention center was underused. So my thought was maybe a change would spark some life into the convention center. Since then, I haven't seen much," Councilman John G. Accardo said, adding that he is disturbed by the general maintenance.

Councilman Charles A. Walker agreed. "It is very important that the center be clean, that people can hear and enjoy themselves and want to come back. I hope the mayor addresses this. I know she's listening," he said of Mayor Irene J. Elia, who was in the audience.

Giscombe said that since Ogden came on board, nine new events have been booked, including a couple of merchandise shows, a gospel concert and an inaugural Kwanzaa event in December, at a cost of $14,000, according to Bergamo. He said in an effort to bring high school and college sports back to the facility, it also will incur the costs for the final basketball game between Niagara Falls and LaSalle high schools, which will merge next year.

Bergamo said the city, labor unions, Niagara Falls Redevelopment and Ogden should work together to address high labor costs here and to lobby the state for funding for the capital improvements the center needs to update it and make it competitive with newer facilities.

He said Niagara Falls Redevelopment is in exploratory talks to develop a museum around 1960s pop artist Peter Max's works. Bergamo said the firm has been talking to several parties about developing an entertainment center in the former East Side mega-mall area.

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