August was a heart-wrenching month for the people working to save and restore the Central Terminal.
In the space of three weeks, the restoration group lost its past two presidents -- longtime leader Russell Pawlak and his successor, Michael Miller, both in their 50s, both from natural causes.
Their deaths could have been enough to derail any organization, especially this one, given its long identification with Pawlak's infectious passion for the iconic building and more recently, Miller's enthusiastic commitment to saving it.
Instead, their successor, Mark Lewandowski, and the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. have regrouped and will redouble efforts to realize the dream of redeveloping the 80-year-old landmark on Buffalo's East Side.
That includes creating a master plan for the building's vaulted concourse, 17-story tower and five-story baggage building they hope to complete in late 2010.
"We wouldn't be at the point where we are now without Russell taking the lead. He was the face of the terminal. And then, when we lost Russell, Mike stepped up," Lewandowski said.
"[Their deaths] were a loss, and a tragedy emotionally, but the organization moves on. There's a whole board here that contributed over the years. We have a farm team, so to speak."
Added board member Anthony Bylewski: "We have the responsibility to keep this building around. Unfortunately, we also have the responsibility to the people who put in the time and effort and are not going to see this building completed."
The grass-roots group took ownership of the badly vandalized and neglected building in October 1997, 18 years after the last Amtrak train left the station. Their scrappy and successful efforts include getting the brick and masonry behemoth stabilized and sealed from the weather and intruders, and since 2003, reopening it to the public.
Their efforts have raised eyebrows among other preservation groups.
"What those guys have done far exceeds anything such major efforts as the Martin House and Roycroft Inn have done," said Robert J. Kresse, who played a pivotal role in helping to save and transform the Darwin Martin House Complex, Asbury Delaware Church and Roycroft Inn.
"The Central Terminal was in such bad condition that what they have done just seems impossible. I applaud them."
Howard Zemsky -- who has also played a key role in the Martin House restoration, is vice chairman of the Richardson Center Corp. and principal funder and managing partner of the Larkin at Exchange Building -- also praised the group.
"The project has had what strikes me as a tremendous amount of grass-roots energy and support. They deserve a lot of credit for accomplishing a lot with relatively few financial resources," Zemsky said.
Last Saturday, Lewandowski donned a New York Central conductor's uniform while 70 vendors at the Central Terminal Train Show exhibited trains, tracks and accessories on the expansive concourse. The two-day show drew 3,000 people.
It was one of many public events held in recent years, from Dyngus Day celebrations to tie-ins with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, that Lewandowski said now generate "close to six-figure operating income" for the all-volunteer group, helping to shift the demographics from 50-and-older to the 25-to-35 set.
Early on, there was a belief that a "silver bullet developer" would materialize, said Lewandowski.
The more sober assessment now is that a master plan needs to be developed to present the site's mixed-use possibilities to potential developers and tenants.
The board envisions a reuse similar to other converted train stations, including those in Cincinnati and Kansas City, that offer museums, restaurants and traveling exhibits. The Central Terminal's tower and baggage buildings, they say, could be used for office, residential and hotel space.
The Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal was built by the same noted railroad architects, Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner, who built the Central Terminal. It was used as a shopping mall for several years before closing.
Thanks to passage of a bond to redevelop the station and a mix of public and private financing, Union Terminal reopened in 1990. Last year 1.3 million people visited its three museums, IMAX theater, research library and restaurant -- more than the attendance for the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, according to Sandra Shipley, chief of staff and vice president of exhibits.
The Cincinnati terminal is also a working train station again, with several routes weekly, often during off-hours.
Board member Hank Olejniczak wants to mirror the Cincinnati transformation in Buffalo.
"It's become a focal point for tourism, and done all the things we dream of," he said.
Shipley said there were concerns initially about whether people would drive to the light industrial neighborhood where the Cincinnati train station is located, more than a mile from downtown. But that fear never materialized.
"I think we are a synergistic force in the neighborhood," Shipley said.
Both the perception and reality of safety surrounding the Central Terminal has been a central, underlying issue, given its location in the Broadway-Fillmore area where poverty and crime often go hand in hand.
Lewandowski said improvements to the station must coincide with community development, including investments in infrastructure, for which he believes the Central Terminal can be a catalyst. But he believes the safety issue at the terminal can be satisfactorily addressed by the two-story parking ramp below the terminal plaza with elevators to take people inside. The 400 parking spots provided are more spaces than the Depew and Buffalo Amtrak stations combined.
"Security is the easiest thing to resolve here, it really is," Lewandowski said.
There is also the possibility of the Central Terminal's becoming a railroad station again.
New York state, as one of several states vying for $8 billion in stimulus funds for high-speed rail that President Obama has made a top priority, could find out as early as this month if it is selected.
That prospect has given hope to supporters of the Central Terminal, where trains still travel within the building's footprint. They think the site, 2 1/2 miles from downtown, would make an ideal train station, just as planners imagined when it had its ill-fated opening in 1929, four months before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
"We are on a major railroad corridor, in which every regional Amtrak train passes by the terminal, whether west to Chicago or north to Niagara Falls and Toronto," Lewandowski said.
State transportation officials in July ruled out using the site as a station, only to reverse course and say it was premature to reach any conclusion.
"The purpose of bringing high-speed rail to upstate New York is to strengthen and re-energize our region, and if it's possible, the Central Terminal should be part of this effort," Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, said at the time. She heads the Upstate New York Caucus trying to bring high-speed rail to Western and Central New York.
Slaughter also told The News that she wants to find other ways to help the Central Terminal's redevelopment.
"We have to do something for that terminal. It is a jewel, and I am very excited about seeing what we can do. I think there will be some help down the road . . .," she said.
Central Terminal volunteers are well aware redeveloping the site is an uphill task, but they say their commitment is reinforced regularly by tourists who drive up to the building.
"On any given day, we'll have the doors open and people come in from Switzerland, Germany, California," Lewandowski said.