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Buffalo wins hearts of hoops fans <br> Visitors praise city for a smooth tournament, its architecture and friendliness of residents

If you ask many out-of-town visitors who experienced March Madness over the weekend, the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament crowned three winners: two basketball teams -- and Buffalo.

West Virginia native Kermit Wamsley, who now lives south of Albany, visited Buffalo for the first time. He said he was impressed with the food, architecture and people. Even parking was a breeze, he said. And Wamsley was stunned by the number of watering holes.

"How many bars per square yard to do you have?" Wamsley asked as he chomped on an oversized cigar. "This looks like a party town to me."

And party they did. While it will take time to tally the impact the tournament had on the economy, experts estimate that it pumped $5 million into hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Most downtown hotels were sold out, said Michael Marsch, president of the Western New York Hotel/Motel Association, who is general manager of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. Up to 14,000 visitors trekked to the region, and some stayed for four nights.

Organizers hope to use the tournament as a tool to land other events in what has become a lucrative niche -- amateur sports. In recent years, about 40 percent of all hotel rooms booked by the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau have been tied to amateur sports. Bureau officials are convinced Buffalo is becoming more adept at handling tournaments of all sizes.

"Having an event like [the NCAA tournament] and doing it well certainly helps us to compete for other events," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the bureau's new president and chief executive officer.

One can't buy the publicity that comes with the national spotlight being thrust on the region in a positive way, officials said.

"Everybody is really into the brackets," said Marsch. "This is a good opportunity to put Buffalo on the stage with other major metropolitan areas."

The bureau recently formed the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, a 36-member panel that will work to land other sporting events. It includes representatives from the Bills, Sabres, Bisons and area colleges and universities.

The bureau recently submitted a bid to host the NCAA's Frozen Four hockey tournament in either 2012 or 2014.

The region already has landed the World Junior Championships in December.

It even has snared some offbeat sporting events, including a Frisbee tournament sponsored by the Ultimate Players Association that will bring 500 people to the Nike Base recreation center in Hamburg.

Amateur sports give Buffalo a chance to grow its convention trade, said Gallagher-Cohen.

"These events are almost recessionproof," she said. "Parents are always traveling with their kids."

And pulling off an event the size of the NCAA tournament helps persuade other groups to give Buffalo a try, she said.

After grappling with "growing pains" when Buffalo hosted the tournament three previous times since 2000, organizers believed the logistics went smoothly this year, all things considered. Bureau officials credited the tournament's Local Organizing Committee, headed by former mayor and Canisius College basketball star Anthony M. Masiello, with dealing with issues that ranged from parking and public transportation to restaurant access.

True, patrons of some restaurants within a mile or so of HSBC Arena encountered long waits. Volunteer "ambassadors" handed out guides showcasing many restaurants, including some outside the downtown district. Shuttles even transported hoops fans to the Elmwood District. Gallagher-Cohen acknowledged that it has been a challenge to combat many people's reluctance to stray too far from the arena for chow.

Ryan Pine lives in the Cayuga County city of Auburn, and he thinks Buffalo is a natural for hosting sporting events. He dreams of trekking to HSBC Arena one year to watch the NCAA Final Four.

John Parson, of New Martinsville, W.Va., had never set foot in Buffalo before Thursday. He said he was most impressed by the "friendly people," an observation echoed by nearly two-thirds of about 30 people who were interviewed outside the arena.

"Everybody says hello here," said Kia Mignott, adding that she can't make the same assertion about her New York City home.

But a few out-of-town visitors said Buffalo needs to deal with vacant buildings.

"There seems to be a hint of newness coming about," said Washington, D.C., resident Rachel Lunceford. "You see some new construction here and there. But there are also some old buildings that could use some tender loving care."

Bonnie Duck, of Syracuse, was even more pointed in her assessment. While she and her husband enjoyed their stay in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, Duck said the view of a stretch of Main Street was sobering.

"I looked out the window today and I felt a little sad, because on one whole side of the street, the buildings were empty," she said. "It was just sad to see these buildings that are so beautiful sitting empty."

The man who oversees the agency that manages and markets the downtown business district acknowledged Sunday that the 500 block of Main Street near the Hyatt has struggled for a quarter-century, ever since vehicles were banned to make way for Metro Rail.

"But there's some positive movement right now," said Michael T. Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place.

One developer recently announced plans to convert two vacant buildings on Main and Washington streets into an incubator for small businesses.

Still, many visitors said they were impressed with Buffalo's emerging waterfront, its opulent Delaware Avenue mansions and its diverse eating establishments. The trick, some said, is telling outsiders about the region's offerings.

Sue Meyer, of Missouri, visited Buffalo for the first time over the weekend. She was impressed with the ease of getting around -- even with a major tournament under way.

"It looks like it would be a really fun town to live in," she said.

Anne-Marie Corkran left Buffalo 19 years ago and currently lives in Maryland. She was in town last weekend for a high school reunion and headed to HSBC Arena to pick up March Madness memorabilia.

"I love Buffalo, but people give it a bad rap," she said.

Corkran believes tourism gurus must spend more money touting the area's cultural and recreational assets to out-of-state people -- even if this means cutting back on local marketing.

"People who live here know how great it is, but people who don't just don't see it," she said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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