City tourism and marketing officials are expressing shock after efforts by Visit Buffalo Niagara to land a major amateur sports conference fell short because of the "dated" condition of the Convention Center's first floor and the vacant storefronts on Main Street downtown.
Local officials are disappointed at the lost opportunity to snare the National Association of Sports Commissions.
"We were so flabbergasted that we didn't get the event," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, president of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the renamed Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We had fantastic cooperation from all of our partners. We really felt like we had it in the bag."
Buffalo had been one of five finalist cities competing for two slots to host the group's annual Sports Event Symposium conference. One dropped out, giving Buffalo an even chance.
The city scored highly for its overall bid and many of its venues, and Visit Buffalo Niagara earned high praise for its efforts, including assistance from the Sabres and Bills.
But the city ultimately failed because the Convention Center "did not measure up" and Main Street lacked enough retail and entertainment options for guests, according to a letter from the director of meetings and events, Beth Hecquet.
"Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities," she wrote. "There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.
"Our attendees place a high value on the ability to access bars, restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options within walking distance."
One of the winning cities is Milwaukee, which has a new convention center. Gallagher-Cohen said she didn't know the identity of the other winner or of the other finalist cities.
Buffalo has had significant luck with amateur sports events, which account for about 40 percent of the business that Gallagher-Cohen's group brings to town.
"We have a great reputation in the amateur athletic world," she said. "So this was particularly painful and heartbreaking, not to get this piece of business."
The news was also disturbing to Erie County Commissioner of Environment and Planning Maria R. Whyte and Buffalo Common Council Member Darius G. Pridgen, who lamented the loss during Wednesday's Buffalo Place board meeting.
"That's the first we heard about that. I was surprised," said Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael T. Schmand. "I feel bad that a sports convention made a decision on old historic buildings that are starting to come back, but I thought we'd have a lot more to offer. I was a little shocked when I heard that."
Gallagher-Cohen said the trade group encouraged the city to keep trying. "They said we would certainly continue to be a contender, and we should continue to bid on it," she said.
Based in Cincinnati, the NASC says it's the only association for sports event travel industry professionals. Founded in 1992, it has grown from just 12 member organizations to nearly 600 today. Its 2012 convention will be in Hartford, Conn., in mid-April.
Gallagher-Cohen said her agency "really pulled out all the stops" to lure the trade group to Buffalo for April 2014 or 2015. She said the tourism agency has bid for the conferences for five years, but this was the first time Buffalo was a finalist.
A successful bid would have meant 700 attendees spending 2,000 hotel room nights in Buffalo, generating an economic impact of $1.06 million.
But even more importantly, Gallagher-Cohen said, "it was the opportunity to showcase the market for what was almost a three-day site visit" for influential figures in amateur athletics.
"We felt, strategically, this was as important a piece of business as we could get," she said. "It was about having all those people who make decisions about sporting events to be in Buffalo."
Officials showed the group's site selection team around town, bringing them to facilities such as First Niagara Center and to various events. They held a reception with Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller and Bills CEO Russ Brandon at Labatt USA, took the team on a tour of the Bills' locker room and had jerseys printed with the site selectors' names.
That wasn't enough to overcome the "very dated" condition of the Convention Center and an impression that "downtown wasn't ready," because of its location on Main Street and "the view outside the front door of the Convention Center" of the Statler Towers under construction, Gallagher-Cohen said.
Schmand said "the 500 block [of Main Street] has always been a difficult block to put back together," as many of buildings predate the Civil War and building codes.
Still, he said, the business improvement district, the city, local developers and new building owners are working to revive the area, including with infrastructure improvements and the return of two-way traffic to Main Street.
"We can look in the rearview mirror, or we can look into the future," he said. "Downtown Buffalo didn't go down overnight, and it's going to take a while to bring back, but it's moving in the right direction."