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Editorial: An intriguing idea for Buffalo's convention center

The proposal by developer Mark Croce comes like a slap to the forehead: Why didn’t someone think of this before? His proposal for a convention center accomplishes so many worthy community goals that it deserves serious investigation.

His idea is to link the existing convention center to Statler City, which Croce owns, by constructing new space over Franklin Street. According to Croce’s preliminary concept, that would provide an additional and badly needed 130,000 square feet of modern convention space. It would also:

  • Avoid the cost of identifying and acquiring space to build an entirely new convention center
  • Keep the existing convention center in productive use and avoid the need to find new uses or to demolish it
  • Help further protect and restore the Statler, completed in 1923 as a convention hotel
  • Create or maintain pedestrian access to mass transit and the Hyatt Regency Hotel, both on Main Street
  • Keep the convention center downtown, near amenities visitors would use, including restaurants, clubs, theaters and other hotels

Not unhelpfully, the location also keeps the convention center a modest distance from the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. It’s a legitimate attraction, certainly, but it pays no taxes and would likely draw many conventiongoers away from other amenities if a new center were built practically next door, as one idea has it.

Croce’s approach, which remains rough, would also create a 10-level parking ramp that could accommodate about 500 cars. Other features include a green roof to reduce stormwater runoff, a solar panel array, an elevated greenway and a new plaza for use by the general public.

To be sure, Croce’s plan includes an element of self-interest in that it would benefit the Statler. Happily, Croce’s self-interest meshes with that of the public, which has its own interest in preserving that beautiful and historic property which only a few years ago seemed to be nearing its demise. That requires finding new uses for the hotel, built with 450 guest rooms. An attached convention center would go a long way toward filling that need.

Croce and his partners anticipate objections, which accompany any large project, especially any that are proposed in Buffalo. Some criticism will no doubt be constructive and the developer says he is interested in hearing other ideas to help what, at this point, is little more than an intriguing and creative idea.

There will be questions about costs, driven in part by the size of conventions Buffalo can reasonably expect to attract.

Croce had no cost estimate to accompany his presentation at The News on Wednesday, which will be a key concern. He expressed confidence that it would be less costly than finding and acquiring new space, building an entirely new convention center and dealing with the husk of the existing building. Presumably, the new space could be made smaller if that seemed more in line with anticipated demand. But that’s an area that needs to be tested.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz put the question succinctly a few weeks ago: Does the county want to remain in the convention business or not? The answer must be yes, as the city develops attractions that are appealing to tourists, a group to which conventioneers belong. That’s a market that this Great Lakes city, home to a treasure trove of great American architecture, cannot afford to pass up. To attract it, a new convention center is indispensable.

We don’t know that this approach can work. Many details would need to be examined. But the proposal counts as a valuable contribution to an important public conversation. Anyone interested in preserving Buffalo’s history, in creating the density that makes urban spaces work and in maximizing what already exists around Niagara Square, should plan to examine this idea closely.

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