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Developer working to return Ice Ball to Statler Towers; Event would be first for venue since March

Developer Mark Croce wants to bring back the Ice Ball to the Statler Towers ballroom on New Year's Eve, less than a year after he purchased the aging and neglected former hotel out of bankruptcy to begin a costly revival.

Croce, the successful Franklin Street restaurateur, said Wednesday that he hopes to attract up to 3,000 partygoers to ring in the new year, as a "coming out" party to showcase the building's potential.

It would be the first public event for the Statler since his purchase in March, and would come on the heels of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's visit to Buffalo in September, when Croce hopes to highlight the former hotel as part of the city's legacy.

"Our goal is to have the building really shine for the National Historic Trust," he said. "It will be a great way to showcase the grand property."

The ball, which was started a few years ago and is the area's largest private party on New Year's Eve, would include live entertainment and at least two DJs, food catered by Croce's Buffalo Chophouse and a "premier" open bar, he said.

Croce said ticket prices are still being determined, but would likely range between $100 to $150 per person, including everything, with lower prices for advance purchase. More details and online ticket purchases will be available shortly at www.statlercity.com, with tickets "probably" going on sale Aug. 1, he added.

Croce's ambitious plans demonstrate the progress he is already making in his quest to bring the landmark downtown edifice back to life, as well as the confidence he has that he can maintain that pace.

Most of the Statler remains closed and in need of significant repair and remodeling after years of neglect and the shuttering of the building during bankruptcy. The building has suffered leaks and other damage during that time, including over the winter, and needed immediate stabilizing after pieces of the exterior fell to the ground from time to time.

His plans entail restoring the basement and first two floors to handle major events, catering and other entertainment, including weddings, as a first step before moving forward with any work on the other 18 floors. That's part of his vision for creating a "city" within a city, for a full entertainment venue.

He has said redevelopment of the rest of the building would be gradual, and would depend on demand and tenants.

Nevertheless, Croce said the first floor and mezzanine level will be ready to start handling events in October. The developer wants to relocate the building's centralized kitchen to the basement, where it was originally when the Statler Hotel was open. Such a state-of-the-art, high-tech kitchen, now in the planning stages, could feed up to 2,500 people at one time for all rooms and functions, he said.

Until that's functional, Croce said, the Chophouse will provide catering services for events. He also hopes to remodel one of the rooms into a nightclub that will be open by year's end. And he already owns and operates enough parking facilities near the Statler to handle up to 1,000 vehicles.

In the meantime, he and his staff have already booked 15 weddings, mostly next summer but starting in spring 2012. "We're booking weddings as fast as we can show the property," he said.

That would be a remarkable turnaround for the 20-story structure on Niagara Square, whose days as the storied flagship of Ellsworth M. Statler's high-end hotel chain ended decades ago with the start of a long period of decay.

Croce said he is preparing to finalize a contract to repair the seven lower-level and courtyard roofs to stop further water damage, and then replace them with "top of the line" roofs with new 25-year warranties. Three "marquee" roofs, plus another rooftop surface and four canopies must also be patched, and drains must be repaired.

Inside, plans call for restoring the terrazzo floors and all the original plaster ceilings on the lower and mezzanine levels. Workers also uncovered the original herringbone hardwood floor in the grand ballroom, so Croce now plans to restore that as well.

All the passenger elevators have been inspected and are fully operational, as are two freight elevators that will eventually be used to gain access to the upper floors for remodeling work without disrupting operations below. Croce said he is also "close to finalizing" a contract to upgrade the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for the basement, first and mezzanine floors.

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com