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The debate over a proposed $124.5 million Buffalo convention center got its first public hearing Friday at a well-attended forum, where opponents and supporters traded charges over who has the better vision for downtown.

Advocates for the 388,000-square-foot project said it would revitalize a four-block area of downtown east of Washington Street and pump $58 million into the economy. Opponents said it would be a huge eyesore that would displace businesses in an area they call the Electric District, and ruin redevelopment opportunities.

"You already have an economy in that Electric District slated for the convention center," said John Nussbaumer, a leader of Citizens for Common Sense, the primary opposition group. "Let's keep it there and put a convention center someplace else."

Supporters said the proposed Mohawk site and its economic benefits had been well researched by several outside consultants and endorsed in 1998 by a blue ribbon panel of government and business leaders appointed by former County Executive Dennis M. Gorski.

"We need economic development in our town, and tourism is a huge industry and a growth industry," said Richard Geiger, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I don't believe its the only silver bullet to solve our economic woes, but it is one."

Althought the arguments at the forum have been publicized previously, it was the first opportunity for Citizens for Common Sense, a grass-roots group formed last summer, to debate the issue with the representatives of the downtown business interests who favor the project.

It also could be a preview of what is expected to be the lengthy public hearings to come, now that County Executive Joel A. Giambra has decided not to proceed with any further work on the convention center plan until an environmental impact statement is completed.

The convention center task force appointed by Gorski did not hold public hearings, and its meetings were closed to the press.

The massive project also has failed so far to attract the major funding it will need from Albany. The State Legislature authorized $300,000 last year for planning, but Gov. George E. Pataki has not included any money for it in his recommended budget this year.

The forum organized by Working for Downtown drew more than 200 people to a ballroom at the newly renovated Adam's Mark Hotel.

In addition to Geiger, panelists supporting the convention center plan were Keith Belanger, a senior vice president at M&T Bank; Thomas L. Connors, a convention center consultant; and Mark Mendell, president of Cannon design.

Mark Goldman, the owner of the Calumet Arts Cafe, joined Nussbaumer in opposing the convention center proposal.

While Nussbaumer debated the merits of the convention center proposal with Geiger, Belanger and Connors, the exchanges between Goldman and Mendell at times became a heated debate over what is the best path overall for revitalizing downtown.

Goldman, whose renovation of the Calumet in the early '90s kicked off the redevelopment of West Chippewa Street, argued the city should focus on smaller renovation projects
and shun big developments such as the proposed convention center entirely.

"The way this question will be decided is not by whose battery of statistics are best," Goldman said. "Do we want a community that reflects its history and character or a faceless, placeless nowheresville of a town?"

He said the buildings in the area where the convention center is proposed would be good candidates for eventual renovation into housing and other uses.

"The way you revitalize is you don't tear down buildings," Goldman said. "If you want a real living downtown, these buildings are the right scale."

Mendell, whose Cannon design is a major consultant during the location study for the proposed convention center and a firm that intends to bid on its construction if the project moves ahead, said bold moves are required if the area is to turn its economy around.

He said there is more than1 million square feet of vacant downtown real estate in which businesses in the Mohawk site area could relocate. The larger non-profit tenants in the area such as Catholic Charities, the Urban League and the University at Buffalo, all have said they would remain downtown.

"This is an opportunity to bring new money into the economy," Mendell said. "Buffalo rates at the lowest of some 50 comparable cities in economic activity. There's been a perpetual chorus of lamentations that Buffalo has missed out on the nation's economic boom.

"There is a time and place for big moves. I disagree with Mark that everything good is from reuse. I disagree the only way we can move ahead is with small measures."

Mendell defended the Mohawk site, saying it met the criteria established for a successful convention center: adequate room for construction, proximity to a large hotel, parking, good transportation access, and nearby entertainment and dining attractions in the Theater District and West Chippewa.

He said the site favored by Citizens for Common Sense, a large parking lot behind the HSBC Atrium Building at Scott and Perry streets, lacks a hotel and also has no entertainment amenities nearby.

Nussbaumer countered that the waterfront site favored by his group could be connected to the nearby Marine Midland Arena and the DL&W Terminal. He also challenged the assertion by convention center supporters that they have a strong consensus for the Mohawk site.

"I don't think there is a consensus in this county about having a convention center at this site," he said. "I don't think people really know about it."

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