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Editorial: Aging facility costs Buffalo a piece of lucrative convention business

The tired state of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center has been a topic of discussion for decades.
The 1978 facility’s lack of nearly everything expected by present-day conventiongoers serves to drives business to more modern spaces elsewhere.

That represents a lost opportunity for a city experiencing a downtown renaissance. And it is incongruous with everything else going on – Canalside, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, HarborCenter, plans for the Outer Harbor and, eventually, whether or not one agrees with the location, a new train station.

Buffalo continues to attract major sporting events. March Madness was a rousing success earlier this year, and will return in 2022; the World Junior Championships in hockey, held here in 2011, will return again this December; and the Division I national hockey championship – the Frozen Four – will be here in 2019.

The convention center does host smaller-scale local, state and national meetings. But with the region’s architectural and recreational highlights, along with Niagara Falls and other attractions, the potential is there for so much more, if only the facility could go from out-of-date to state-of-the-art.

Buffalo is well behind its peers when it comes to convention centers. Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler and Convention Center Director Paul Murphy bemoaned Buffalo’s lackluster convention reputation as compared with Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Those cities and others in Buffalo’s peer group offer much greater prime exhibit space and appealing settings. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh boasts about its riverside location. Its more than 200,000 square feet of prime exhibit space dwarfs Buffalo’s 64,000 square feet. The Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland opened in 2013 and is nearly as big as Pittsburgh’s.

Albany’s $78 million Capital Center is small, but is also open and airy and brand new.

Other cities have their sights on new convention centers. Rochester has been discussing a $100 million convention center expansion since 2013. Niagara County, Niagara Falls and the state will contribute up to $150,000 to study the prospects of a new multi-use facility in the Falls.

News staff reporter Sandra Tan’s recent article highlighted how the convention center’s shortcomings dashed the hopes of one meeting site selector to hold an event here.

Michelle Smith traveled to Buffalo last fall in her role as director of meetings for the Association of College Unions International. The organization draws thousands of people to its regional and national conventions. Smith was initially attracted to the region’s concentration of college campuses. Unfortunately, that draw was overwhelmed by the convention center’s lack of “curb appeal, amenities, lighting and layout design.”

It was a brutally honest assessment. So what can be done about a 40-year-old convention center that is showing its age?

The answer may come in the study being proposed by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. He is willing to spend up to $150,000 to examine convention center alternatives, from renovating and expanding the existing convention center to building an entirely new facility downtown.

The biggest stumbling block to an upgraded convention center is money. The state would have to play a significant role. Given the governor’s strong commitment to Western New York, that may be possible once the study lays out the possibilities. Still, it will be years before a new facility can be built, years of watching other cities grab lucrative convention business.

There has been a flurry of activity since the last serious push for a new convention center 20 years ago. The need was there but the money did not materialize, and the county ended up spending $7 million in 2010 to fix up the existing building.

Getting that work done allowed Buffalo to gain a “stronger foothold in comparably competitive markets,” as this page remarked at the time. Now that foothold is slipping. It is time to examine alternatives. The proposed study is a good first step.

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