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'Outdated' convention center puts Buffalo at a disadvantage

When Michelle Smith came to Buffalo last fall, she hoped it would make a good convention spot.

She had read about Buffalo’s economic renaissance, heard about the flurry of new development and personally witnessed the improvements to Canalside. The friendly and affordable city also offered a long list of indoor and outdoor activities and attractions.

As the director of meetings for the Association of College Unions International, which draws thousands of people to its regional and national conventions, Smith knew the region’s concentration of college campuses would also be a plus.

Then she visited the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

By the time she left, she had crossed Buffalo off her list of possible convention destinations.

Curb appeal, amenities, lighting, layout design. All fell short.

“We’re ruling it out for anything in the future until we hear some good news,” she said. “There would have to be some considerable improvements for us to consider it for our annual conference.”

[PHOTO GALLERY: Most unloved buildings in Buffalo Niagara]

Those in the local tourism and hospitality trade have heard comments like hers before. Convention center and Visit Buffalo officials have also become accustomed to hearing the words “run-down,” “tired,” “outdated” and “obsolete.”

County Executive Mark Poloncarz wants to change that. The county is prepared to spend up to $150,000 to study convention center alternatives, everything from renovating and expanding the existing convention center to building a new one downtown.

The existing, concrete meeting facility, built in 1978, still does brisk business. Last year, the convention center recorded a 73 percent occupancy rate with a $35 million economic impact.

But tourism officials bemoan its lost potential. With greater exhibit space and more modern features, they say, the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center would qualify to host hundreds more events each year.

No one disputes the center simply has not kept pace with downtown’s economic resurgence. The number of downtown hotel rooms has grown by 40 percent over the last decade, while the convention center has been trapped in space and time, despite millions of dollars in upgrades since 2010 to soften its look and modernize its offerings.

[PHOTO GALLERY: A look around Buffalo's bland Convention Center]

Past efforts to construct a new convention center have failed, but Poloncarz said he’s not looking for a new convention center just because the existing one is too old and too small. He wants one because the region can now compete better than before with other major metro areas in terms of amenities, attractions and hotels.

The convention center should not be the weak link keeping Buffalo from being a worthwhile travel destination, he said.

“We’re now moving into a bigger league,” he said.

Poor by comparison

The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center has not been keeping up with the Joneses.

The big-box bunker turns 40 next year. It’s been labeled “inadequate” and “outdated” for more than half its lifetime.

Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler and Convention Center Director Paul Murphy stood together in the bland, hemmed-in lobby and joked about how Buffalonians compare their city to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. When it comes to convention space, there’s no comparison at all.

“We’re not even close,” Murphy said.

The lobby at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center lets in little natural light and is considered confined and basic compared with more modern meeting centers. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A glossy, picture-packed booklet about the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh touts the riverside building as “the most beautiful convention center in the world.” Overhauled in 2003, it offers nearly three times more prime exhibit space, “walls of windows, expansive terraces and balconies that open to incredible river- and cityscapes.”

The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland opened in 2013 and also offers nearly twice as much exhibit hall space. An attached, 600-room Hilton hotel opened last summer.

Albany opened its new, smaller-but-open and airy $78 million Capital Center in March.

Other cities have new convention centers on their radar.

Rochester has been talking about a $100 million convention center expansion since 2015.

Niagara County, Niagara Falls and the state will contribute up to $150,000 to study the feasibility of a new multiuse facility in Niagara Falls for conventions, sporting events and concerts.

A trade show journal from seven years ago ranked Buffalo 158th in North America for its amount of convention center exhibit space. The convention center is even smaller than the Syracuse Oncenter for uninterrupted exhibit hall space.

Buffalo needs to get moving, Kaler said.

The shortcomings

Smith was disappointed in the Buffalo convention center from the moment she pulled up to the curb.

The Association of College Unions International meetings director compared Buffalo with her hometown in Indianapolis, a midsize, amateur sports town that built itself into a top-ranked convention destination that generates more than $4 billion annually in economic impact.

Buffalo’s convention center has clearly had been left behind an otherwise growing downtown core.

“It was really surprising,” she said.

The big-box look of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center gives it little curb appeal. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Natural light, a huge trend in meeting space design, was lacking throughout the building. The layout offered no informal, community gathering spaces where convention goers could gather and network. Spaces did not flow together. Just getting to the restrooms was a chore.

She took her regional conference to Philadelphia. She knew she would never persuade the Association of College Unions International – an organization representing student activity centers and student unions in the United States – to hold either its regional or national conventions here.

“Had I presented that to our members, many of whom are college students, yeah, that would not have worked out,” she said. “They want the latest and greatest. That’s what they get at their college. That’s what they get on their campus.”

Working professionals want the same thing, she added.

“Frankly,” she said, “that convention center is neither innovative nor inspiring in its current state.”

Murphy, who conducts tours for meeting planners considering Buffalo as a destination, said he’s witnessed plenty of deflating enthusiasm. Some are better about hiding it than others. But inevitably, they ask the question, “What’s your plan for renovation?”

The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center gets more positive marks than negative ones from the groups that hold events there. Its guest satisfaction rating last year was 4.7 out of 5 possible points.

But the negative feedback is fairly consistent and often in line with Smith’s complaints.

But there’s more. Murphy pointed to the ballroom’s burlap walls, dated carpeting and missing dividers. Meeting rooms lack proper soundproofing. He recalled the center recently hosted a dance competition and a religious dinner the same evening. Though he tried to separate the events as best he could, those attending the dinner still heard and felt a thumping bass beat.

The convention center ballroom needs higher ceilings and an upgrade to its carpets and burlap walls. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Low ballroom and exhibit hall ceiling height makes for poor production staging and disqualifies the convention center from certain sports tournaments. No dedicated convention parking exists. The crowded loading docks cause streetside overflows and offer no place for people getting off buses to gather.

Finally, there’s the main exhibit hall itself. At a mere 64,410 square feet, Buffalo is automatically ineligible for many conventions and trade shows that its peer cities are getting.

Murphy says he’s often forced to give answers that he knows will turn away business.

“There’s only so much dancing around you can do,” he said.

The positives

The last time a serious push was made for a new convention center was 20 years ago. At that time, consensus was building around a new convention center built at the Mohawk Ramp site, which would have involved acquiring more than two dozen private properties across 11 acres just the northeast of the existing building.

When it became clear the money wasn’t there, the county instead spent $7 million in 2010 to spruce up the existing building. Millions more have since been earmarked to keep the current convention center as competitive as it can be.

Only so much can be done to make a concrete box look welcoming. Whatever can be done, has been done.

As visitors walked around a bustling food show recently occupying the exhibit hall floor, modern-looking LED lights camouflaged the lower-than-standard exhibition hall ceiling, which was repainted from beige to black to fade from view. Artistic wave patterns rim the upper concrete walls.

Meanwhile, teams of cooks mixed and prepped in the downstairs industrial kitchen, which now has three times more space than it did five years ago and includes an inviting tasting room for clients. Convention-goers consistently give the center high marks for its banquet food, Murphy said.

The enclosed walkway connecting the convention center to the Hyatt Regency Buffalo is another plus. So is the fact that it’s a union facility, making it attractive to state union organizations, which represent some of the largest annual conventions held statewide.

Makeover money was spent on a large digital sign hanging over the entrance. The county upgraded floors, fixtures and equipment. The convention center’s improvements include better sound, audiovisual and Wi-Fi systems.

Both floors have better acoustics and the ceilings were made more presentable.

The downstairs boardroom is refined enough to rival private, upscale office space.

This year the county has committed $1.25 million to renovate the outdated, cinderblock and teal-colored bathrooms, which have been roundly criticized in the surveys as dated, poorly located and “ridiculously small.”

These improvements, coupled with affordable pricing, have allowed the convention center to steadily grow its convention revenue each year. But the center’s occupancy rate already exceeds 70 percent and can’t grow its high-value convention business more without a significant upgrades and expansion – an expansion Buffalo deserves, said Kaler of Visit Buffalo Niagara.

“We are Western New York’s convention leader,” he said. “We want to keep it that way.”

Trucks are often forced to idle in the street because of the convention center's limited loading dock space. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The study

The study for a new convention center is only the first step. It’s also the easiest.

Regardless of whether the study recommends overhauling and expanding the convention center at its current location, or building a new one somewhere else, the barrier between vision and reality comes down to a matter of cost. The last push for a new convention center died because the county didn’t have the money to build one.

But both Poloncarz and Kaler say they are optimistic the state will assist in financing a new convention center because of the governor’s commitment to Western New York. They also point to the commitment Cuomo made last year to spend $1 billion to expand the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.

Given the state’s Buffalo Billion investments in the region, and Cuomo’s satisfaction with the region’s rising profile, the two local leaders are hopeful they will have more sources of funding for a new convention center this time around.

“There’s additional assistance today that didn’t exist back then,” Poloncarz said.

Bids for the convention center study are due May 26. The proposals will be evaluated by a team from the Department of Environment and Planning and the Department of Public Works, he said.

A new convention center is still years away, even if community support and financing come together. But Kaler said the time is right to lay a path.

“We’re never going to be Orlando or Chicago,” he said. “But there’s a place for Buffalo.”

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