Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is asking the public: Do we want to be in the convention business? The answer should be a resounding yes.
Conventions bring visitors who bring dollars. Getting convention visitors to come here requires a suitable convention space. The one in downtown Buffalo is aged and looks like a bunker. Poloncarz and Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler told The News that the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center is the oldest convention center in the United States that has not undergone a major renovation.
The county spent $7 million in 2010 to fix up the existing building. It made some difference, enough to keep booking business.
Poloncarz made the dry but accurate comment: "It's the place you want to go when the nuclear war started."
Millions of dollars are being left on the table because we do not have suitable exhibition, ballroom and meeting space. Hotels, restaurants and shops sell less and make less money. Fewer people get jobs working in those businesses. As a community, we are poorer.
Instead, that money is enriching places like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Richmond and Cleveland — even Niagara Falls, Ont. Buffalo has lost out on 780 conventions and meetings because of the state of our facility, Kaler contends.
With our inadequate, deteriorating facility, the county executive put it right: Doing nothing is tantamount to getting out of the convention business.
So what will it take to keep Buffalo in the business? Consultants hired by the county last year say that to be competitive, Buffalo needs about twice the space of the existing convention center — and it needs to be "a state-of-the-art development." They settled on two possibilities:
• Keep the convention center in the heart of downtown by expanding the current center into a three-building complex. The current building on Franklin Street would be torn down to steel and rebuilt, Poloncarz said. It would be attached to the back part of the Statler Towers across the street and a new building erected on the block north of the Statler. The consultants estimate that would cost $350 million to $429 million.
• Build a new convention center near Canalside and the KeyBank Center arena. The center would be one large building stretching from the HSBC offices to Michigan Avenue. The entire site is currently parking lots, including Buffalo News parking. The consultants estimate that would cost $329 million to $368 million.
Those are big price tags. Poloncarz offered possible financing options such as creating a special taxing district or increasing the hotel and bed tax.
We don't want to jinx things, but Buffalo is hot these days. Canalside draws people year round. The city center, from Canalside to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, is resurgent. The region is an architectural gem. Our two Great Lakes make us an outdoors destination. From the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Times of London, the press is singing Buffalo's praises.
Site selectors read those stories. They love the idea of being close to Niagara Falls. Then they show up at the door of the current 40-year-old Convention Center and smiles dissolve.
We aren't sure which plan is best. Much remains to be learned. But we are sure of the answer to Poloncarz's question. We need to stay in the convention business.