County Executive Joel A. Giambra wants to delay the proposed downtown convention center for more than a year, saying the public should have more time to comment on the project and where it should be located.
"I want to do it right so we don't have another Peace Bridge debacle," Giambra said. "This gives the public a chance to participate in the decision. If it's not done, it opens us up to delays and potential lawsuits."
Giambra's position is a marked shift away from the approach that former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski took on the $124.5 million project. It also puts him at odds with business leaders who support a new convention center on the Mohawk site and want speedy action on a project they believe is a key to downtown Buffalo's economic development.
Giambra said he believes he's legally required to complete an environmental impact statement before proceeding with preliminary design work on a new convention facility. He predicted the study would take 12 to 18 months. It would include public hearings and a look at alternatives to the Mohawk site.
"To delay this a year to 18 months . . . is not acceptable," said Paul L. Snyder Sr., whose Hyatt Regency Buffalo would serve the proposed facility. "Several hotels are having a hard time trying to survive until this convention center is built."
Opponents of the Mohawk site, however, welcomed Giambra's decision to give the public more time to discuss the project, which would occupy almost four blocks of downtown along Washington Street between Huron and Mohawk streets.
"I'm really excited that Joel Giambra is going to take the time to fully review all the different factors that will affect the city," said Beth Hoskins, spokeswoman for Citizens for Common Sense, a group that supports an alternative site near the waterfront.
Gorski had planned an environmental study and hearings as well, but he also wanted to move ahead at the same time by hiring engineering and architectural firms to refine the Mohawk proposal to lobby the state for funding this year.
No money for a Buffalo convention center was included in Gov. George E. Pataki's proposed budget released two weeks ago.
Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Lancaster, who was expected to help lead the effort in Albany to obtain money for the convention center, said he was surprised at Giambra's decision to slow the timetable on the project.
Volker said he expects to receive soon a business plan for financing the facility from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Buffalo Niagara Partnership. The plan, he said, would help in the effort to obtain state backing for the convention center.
The only money committed so far from Albany is $300,000 from the State Legislature, which was obtained last year with the help of Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, chairman of the Assembly tourism committee.
While Volker said that obtaining state funding for the proposed Inner Harbor redevelopment project is his top priority this session, the convention center ranks second. He also believes both have a chance of obtaining funding this year.
"From my perspective, I'd hope we'd be able to move ahead," Volker said. "If Joel wants to look at it some more, that's something the community will have to deal with."
The Gorski administration had received bids from interested engineering and architectural firms last year to refine the Mohawk plan, but decided to postpone awarding contracts until after the election.
Gorski, who backed the convention center plan, lost to Giambra, who endorsed the concept but questioned the proposed location during the campaign.
The new county executive continued to hedge on his views regarding the Mohawk site during an interview earlier this week. It was his first comment on the convention center proposal since taking office.
"I don't have the pieces yet," Giambra said. "That (Mohawk site) is what was recommended by the consultants and that will, I assume, be confirmed by the environmental impact statement."
The Mohawk site was recommended by a task force of government and business leaders appointed by Gorski in 1998 and has the support of the business community and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. It has been endorsed by the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Buffalo Place.
While supporters of the Mohawk site agree an environmental study is necessary, they believe the county can do other work while that process is taking place.
"I'm not surprised the next step would be the (environmental impact study)," said Keith Belanger, a leader of Business Backs the Convention Center and a senior vice president at M&T Bank. "I'd suggest there are things that could be done parallel. It's a significant investment that can only be led by the county."
Giambra believes Gorski's policy of refining the plan for the Mohawk site while conducting an environmental study was flawed. Such a study, by law, would also include examining alternative sites such as the waterfront location favored by Citizens for Common Sense.
"How do you award contracts without an environmental impact statement?" Giambra said. "I think it should be done right, and public involvement is the key. If we do it right, the chance of the project's success is a lot stronger than people ramrodding it."
Gorski could not be reached to comment.
The law is gray about when an environmental review should begin, according to Richard Sweeney, an environmental analyst for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
It's permissible, he said, for the county to start preliminary actions with the goal of building a convention center without an environmental impact study.
"The problem is, how far can you go before leading consultants down a preselected path?" Sweeney said. "If you're identifying a preferred alternative, you've probably gone too far."
Giambra said the bidding process conducted by the Gorski administration to solicit proposals from architects and engineers for the next phase of the convention center project likely will be shelved.
"The bids and interest were a good exercise," he said, "but I don't know what value it will be at this point."
Supporters of the Mohawk site for the convention center say they plan to continue lobbying Giambra on its behalf.
"We've got to sit down with Joel Giambra again and talk with him with respect to the (convention center) business plan," said Richard Geiger, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Supporters of building a new convention center have said it will allow Buffalo to compete for 90 percent of the conventions held in the United States and would double the annual economic impact to the area, to $58 million. The current center, which opened in 1977, can accommodate about half that market.
John Nussbaumer, one of the leaders of Citizens for Common Sense, said his group plans to continue to lobby against the current convention center plan. He will participate in a panel discussion on the convention center, sponsored by the Buffalo Forum, at noon Friday in the Adam's Mark Hotel.