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Adieu to Lafayette Square for now; As Thursday's concerts move to the waterfront, first venue is up in air

Thursday at the Square has long attracted crowds to the small city block featuring a Civil War monument and surrounded by some of downtown's tallest buildings.

Thursday, the 25-year-old free concert series, with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals headlining, played the last of four shows there this summer before the remaining six concerts move to the waterfront.

With a concerted effort under way to make the waterfront a downtown destination, signs point to this year's transition becoming permanent. But officials at Buffalo Place, the not-for-profit group that produces the annual concert series, say no final decisions have been made beyond this year.

"It's had a remarkable run," said Mike Schmand, Buffalo Place's executive director. "We're not saying it's over yet."

"We're just not at that decision-making point now," said Anthony Colucci III, Buffalo Place's president and vice chairman.

Buffalo Place was rehired this year by Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. to provide operations, maintenance and special-event programming at the harbor.

"It has been a dream to have an amphitheater on the waterfront since the late '90s. We've talked about it for 12 years and looked at other successful amphitheaters around the country," Schmand said.

During Thursday's concert, cousins Ben Feeney and Robert Miller said they would welcome a move to the waterfront, because Lafayette Square cannot accommodate large crowds comfortably.

Both were at the first Thursday at the Square concert on July 2, 1987, where they saw Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps. That was when shows were held in a parking lot that is now the site of Fountain Plaza, at the corner of Main and Chippewa streets.

"I think the change is long overdue. It's gotten too crowded. You want to enjoy yourself, and when its too crowded you can't," Feeney said.

Miller, who has seen Jakob Dylan and the Black Crowes perform on the waterfront, said it is a superior location. "I like the atmosphere, because it's right by the water," he said. "The moon comes out, man, and it's awesome."

But plenty of longtime Thursday at the Square-goers, like Dave Emhof of Angola, said the series should stay put.

"It's got to stay at Lafayette for tradition. [The waterfront] is too large a venue. There's much more intimacy here. It's like homecoming, family, where you see people you know all the time," Emhof said.

Kurt Lasly of Clarence worried the change of location would make it inconvenient for people like himself to hit the bars on Chippewa afterward. Tom Gruszka of West Seneca feared concertgoers would spend less time downtown, spending fewer dollars there.

Stephanie Malinowski, whose son, Joe Malinowski, played drums for the opening group, Southside, said she likes the Lafayette Square location but also felt the waterfront would be better for crowd control, vendors and promoting a "festival atmosphere."

Repositioning the temporary stage at the waterfront next month to face the water, is expected to offer improved sightlines and crowd movement, better than the current setup and Lafayette Square, Schmand said.

Erie Canal Harbor is hosting six "Buffalo Rocks the Harbor" concerts this summer on weekends, including Elvis Costello, who plays Saturday, Alice Cooper and Flogging Molly.

There is a charge to see the shows, but the ticket price of $10 in advance and $20 the day of the show is much lower than those bands usually command. But tickets are $46 for an upcoming show by Tragically Hip.

Schmand and Peggy Beardley, associate director, said the series began to attract larger crowds after sponsorships in 1997 from Labatts Blue, M&T Bank, Try-It Distributors and The Buffalo News made it possible for national acts to be regularly booked.

That year, Echo and the Bunnymen played to the largest crowd at that point.

"We realized then that Thursday at the Square was more about music than a happy hour," Schmand said.

Pat Benatar's show in 2001 is still considered the most highly attended to date.

"It was busting at the seams. You couldn't walk through [Lafayette Square]," Beardsley said.

Local bands have continued to have prominence as opening acts. For many of the bands it's been a dream come true. "It meant the world to us to play there," said Luke Hammill of the rock band Autopunch, which opened for Morris Day and Time on June 9.

"When we first started about two years ago, that was one of the goals we had. I've seen some of my favorite bands there, and now I can say my band played there too," Hammill said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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