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GROUP'S MEETING CONDITIONED UPON FIX-UP OF CONVENTION CENTER

When a Maryland event planner visited Buffalo this summer to scope out the region for a future convention of 1,800 delegates, she described the downtown convention center as an "embarrassment."

"It's an old, tired-looking building," said Madelaine Morgan, a certified meeting planner for the Society of American Foresters. "Your convention and tourism people are absolutely top-notch. But the condition of your convention center is costing you business."

Buffalo remains in the running for the society's 2003 convention, an event that will use more than 3,800 hotel rooms and could pump an estimated $1.5 million into the economy. But there's a string attached. Meeting planners want local officials to sign a written commitment to make aesthetic improvements at the Convention Center, including lobby renovations, new carpeting in meeting rooms and new wallpaper or paint.

While cost estimates have not been prepared, some convention and tourism officials have estimated that any significant face lift would require a "seven-figure" financial commitment.

Without the written commitment, the convention will likely be held in Rochester, Milwaukee, Wis., or Kansas City, Mo.

Some local hotel owners and tourism officials said Friday that the concerns expressed by the forestry group underscore the problem Buffalo faces as it struggles to compete in an increasingly competitive multibillion-dollar convention industry. They want county officials to earmark money for aesthetic improvements, noting that delays in building a new convention center will extend the need for the existing facility for at least five more years. To bolster their case, they said dozens of regions have already expanded or modernized their convention centers -- or built new facilities.

Figures released Friday by the Greater Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau indicate that the economic impact from conventions held in the center has dropped from $37.8 million in 1997 to $32.6 million last year. This year, conventions held in the downtown facility are projected to pump $25 million into the economy when the so-called "multiplier effect" is used, a formula that gauges both direct and in-direct spending. That represents a three-year decline of more than 30 percent.

"This report is about lost opportunities," said David Hart, whose company owns five hotels in the region. "I don't blame the CVB staff. You can't make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what."

Hart heads a bureau committee trying to assess the type of repairs needed to effectively operate and market the convention center. He said the county's recent commitment for $500,000 in mechanical upgrades -- including roof repairs and electrical upgrades -- will not address what he described as a pressing need to upgrade the building's appearance. "Look around you. We still have old linoleum-style floors with throw-rugs on some of them. Look at the old ceiling tiles. Then go outside and see how much curb appeal this building has with its old signs," said Hart.

Earlier this year, officials met with architectural and engineering consultants to discuss strategies for improving the building's appearance.

Deputy County Executive Carl A. Calabrese said it's too early to speculate whether the county -- which owns the convention center -- would be willing to finance extensive cosmetic improvements in the 22-year-old facility. He noted that officials are just beginning a department-by-department review of budgetary needs in the coming year.

"But the timing is not great for this," said Calabrese. "When there's a movement afoot to either build a new center or expand the existing one. You obviously don't want to put a lot of money into a facility that has a limited life."

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