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Buffalo tourism guru pushing plan to expand amateur sports

The region’s leading tourism advocate is envisioning a Field of Dreams to lure more amateur sporting events to Buffalo.

In fact, if Patrick Kaler is successful in his lobbying, it would be more like 30 to 50 fields and some indoor facilities.

Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, wants to grow the area’s sports tourism business by capitalizing on the success that VBN and the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission have had in recent years. Last year, VBN landed 168 sports events, generating about 80,000 hotel room nights, but officials believe they could do much more.

If done right, they say, the effort could double the local impact of amateur sports, from $70 million now to as much as $140 million, according to a report by a consultant commissioned by VBN.

But doing that would require a significant new public and private sector investment, by pouring additional taxpayer and donor dollars not only into the organization’s own budget and resources to capture the business, but also by renovating the area’s dated facilities and constructing major new ones. And that will first require convincing local government leaders, corporate sponsors, sports facility owners, developers and the community to buy into the agency’s new 10-year plan.

So Kaler, armed with the report, is taking his story on the road.

“This is our way to go to the county and put it in front of them, as well as approaching corporate sponsorships that can help subsidize and bring those partners to the table,” Kaler said during a meeting Wednesday with The Buffalo News editorial board. “It gives us a document to work from, rather than just Patrick and the sports team saying we need more money.”

The report by Indianapolis-based TSE Consulting, which culminated an eight-month process that began last May, examined the success of a peer group of cities of similar size and scope to Buffalo, including Cleveland, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Nashville, St. Louis and Indianapolis. It also used a prior study of existing local facilities to determine which are suitable for use or need renovations.

“Although there are some magnificent facilities in Buffalo and Erie County, there are also some areas in which additional facilities would help significantly,” said TSE director Dale Neuburger, an Amherst native.

Specifically, the report called for a new 3,000- to 5,000-seat mid-sized arena, plus a multi-field complex that would include fields for soccer, lacrosse and rugby, and diamonds for baseball and softball. Such a project also would have to feature hotels, restaurants and related infrastructure to serve the needs of not only the athletes but their families. That would require significant acreage, and most likely would be located in the suburbs, although Kaler cited the success of Riverworks in Buffalo as host for roller derby, hockey, curling and pickleball.

“It gives another opportunity for other developers to think about if they’re sitting on another plot of land or an abandoned building that could be converted into a new facility,” Kaler said.

The report recommended renovations and modifications to the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center so it could be used for indoor sports, such as volleyball, gymnastics, judo, tae kwon do, boxing or wrestling, with adequate ceiling heights and foldout bleachers for fans. And it suggested changes to the track and field facility at the University at Buffalo, as well as the Flickinger Center at Erie Community College.

Additionally, VBN and the Sports Commission need more sustainable sources of money, not only from taxes but also from sponsorships, membership programs and grants. That’s needed to pay for the higher costs of operating larger events and venues, and to cover the bid fees that are often required when seeking new business.

With the enhanced facilities and more money, the agency could expand from five core sports – ice hockey, softball, baseball, swimming and track and field – to nine by adding basketball, skating, gymnastics and bowling.