Since the 1930s, when the Ford Motor Co. built an assembly plant on the outer harbor, the two cavernous structures now known as Terminals A and B have proved mainstays of the Buffalo waterfront.
But for the first time, the behemoths stand empty and mothballed, unable to find a tenant. Now they pose a major challenge for their owner, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, while raising questions about their future on a waterfront that has grand plans for redevelopment.
"We're at a crossroads," said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel. "On the outer harbor, there are environmental issues, so it's not an easy nut to crack."
In the past, the buildings at 901 Fuhrmann Blvd. served as terminals for the Port of Buffalo; as a distribution center for Tops Markets, Rich Products and Sonwil Corp.; and most recently as manufacturing space for Nanodynamics -- a defunct company that developed tiny "nanomaterials" for industry.
The NFTA has vigorously marketed Terminals A and B in recent months as ideal space for manufacturing or warehousing -- indeed, for anything. The authority is advertising the almost 400,000 square feet of warehousing and office space, the high bay doors, rail and water access, office space and parking for 500 cars.
But for almost a year, there have been no takers.
"There are no immediate prospects, but we continue to show it," said Ruth Keating, the authority's senior counsel and manager of real property. "We still view it as a viable commercial enterprise."
The port terminal buildings differ from other vacant manufacturing and warehousing facilities around Western New York because of their location along prime waterfront land.
While planners hope to transform the long-vacant stretch of outer harbor into the region's signature playground and tourist attraction, they must also deal with the two hulking buildings.
As a result, Minkel said the authority holds regular conversations with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which is now overseeing waterfront development.
"We're in discussion with ECHDC and want to hear their ideas," she said. "It's an open dialogue with them on A and B."
Erich Weyant, spokesman for the harbor corporation, said that while his agency and the NFTA hold regular conversations, there has been no discussion about the future of the port terminal buildings.
The current sour economy isn't helping the NFTA's marketing efforts.
"We've been working for a number of years to market it," Minkel said, "but unfortunately the economic climate is not doing as well as we had hoped. We have not been able to successfully bring in a tenant."
The current situation did not develop for lack of trying. The NFTA retained Hunt Real Estate to market the facilities throughout the area and Southern Ontario, with Keating noting that 50 percent of showings to interested tenants so far have been to Canadian businesses.
And for the last year, the authority has issued a special inducement of a 10 percent commission to brokers as opposed to the normal 5 percent.
But for now, all the NFTA can do is mothball the properties against the wind that often blows in off Lake Erie.
"In the meantime," Minkel said, "it makes no sense to heat them."