Ramada Hotels and local developers are eyeing the faded Corn Exchange Building, just off Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo, for a 200-room, upscale hotel.
Buffalo businessman David Knoll and Savarino Construction Services Corp., of Williamsville, want to transform the century-old structure at 100 S. Elmwood Ave., at the corner of South Elmwood Avenue and Niagara Street, to a 200-plus room full-service hotel. The site, located in what is rapidly becoming the heart of city's government services corridor, is viewed as the perfect location for a Ramada Plaza hotel, the chain's upper tier brand which targets business travelers and others seeking upscale accommodations.
The Ramada corporation has signed a letter of intent to pursue the project.
"Ramada is very interested, we're very interested," said David Pawlik, a Savarino executive. "This hotel would literally be steps away from the new federal courthouse and the FBI, and right next door to a brand new office complex that will be home to several federal agencies."
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said he's "thrilled" to hear about the hotel project which he said is more evidence of downtown's rebound.
"When private developers and a top-notch hotel chain are interested, you know the momentum is building," Masiello said. "This would take an unproductive Class C building and give it tremendous new value."
While Pawlik expressed optimism, he said the development team faces a "very complex" due diligence process to determine whether the existing four-story structure can be turned into an eight to 10-floor hotel. Engineering teams are scoping out the building's structural integrity, as well as potential costs for the ambitious conversion.
"We need to know exactly what we're working with before we get too far ahead of ourselves," Knoll said. "We need more information and we're still in the exploration stage."
In addition to some 200-rooms outfitted with mini-offices to accommodate the business traveler, the hotel would house a restaurant, as well as meeting and banquet rooms.
"We believe we would be in a unique position to provide an extremely convenient, high quality hotel right where the demand is," Pawlik said. "It's a niche that's not being served now."
The prospect of another 200 or more rooms hitting the downtown hotel market is not good news for the local hospitality industry, according to Richard Geiger, president of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"That last thing we need is more rooms. We need more demand to fill the rooms we already have," Geiger said, noting that downtown hotel occupancy has hovered below 60 percent in 2004. "People do not wake up in Cleveland and say 'Let's go to Buffalo I hear there's a new hotel there.' They need more reasons to come to Buffalo," he said.
The tourism chief said while an exciting, new Ramada is likely to be a strong draw, its success would come at the expense of other downtown properties.
If the hotel becomes a reality, it would be the first new downtown hotel to open since 2001, when the Hampton Inn and The Mansion debuted, adding nearly 200 rooms within a month. But it's not the first new property that's been proposed in the past year.
Buffalo developers Carl Paladino and Frank McGuire considered building a combination hotel/office building on Court Street, but scrapped the hotel rooms as plans have evolved. Meanwhile, Bass Pro's hoped-for conversion of Memorial Auditorium to a giant sporting goods store, includes a hotel in the top of the former sports arena.
Buffalo restaurateur Mark Croce has said he'd like to convert an office building on Franklin Street to a small, boutique hotel, but to date he has not turned that idea into blueprints.
Built around 1910 as an electrical manufacturing plant, the structure is best known for housing the Corn Exchange of Buffalo for some 30 years. From the late 1930s, through the early 1960s, the building was home to the grain commodities trading floor, and also served as an inspection site for samples of corn, wheat and other grains headed to the area's milling operations.
Over the last 40 years, the fading structure had been used as an office building. It is now mostly empty, with its last few tenants slated to depart at the end of the year.