Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Wednesday he was slightly surprised and gratified to find that 86 percent of people responding to an online survey favored opening a new convention center.
But he was more surprised to find that 64 percent of those in favor of a new convention center expressed no preference for either of the two locations recommended by HVS Consulting – either expanding the footprint of the existing Buffalo Niagara Convention Center downtown or building a new one in what is currently a giant parking lot near Canalside and KeyBank Center.
Those who picked neither site either had no strong preference for a location or expressed the desire to see a new convention center built somewhere else.
"We don’t have an exact picture from members of the public regarding exactly where the new convention center should be," said Poloncarz, in response to the feedback from 668 people. "We’re going to have to do a deep dive into both sites at this point."
To that end, he said, he'll seek County Legislature approval to spend up to $250,000 to hire a local engineering firm that can detail how much it would cost to build or dramatically expand a convention center at either site. The comprehensive cost analysis would factor in all related property acquisition, demotion, asbestos abatement and utility and sewer infrastructure costs, he said. The analysis would also review a concept by Statler City developer Mark Croce to expand the convention center upward across the roof of both the current convention center building and the rear roof of the Statler hotel.
County officials hope to finalize a convention center location by the end of the year.
Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo said he opposes spending money on a new study when the existing convention center is pulling in more business than it ever has and the public has not had the ability to weigh in on the need for a new convention center with all the facts.
"How many studies are we going to put out there to pad people’s wallets until we figure out what we’re going to do?" said Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "People haven’t had the chance to weigh in knowing what the costs are going to be."
He also expressed skepticism about the validity of the online feedback the county received, saying the constituents he's spoken to are all opposed to a new convention center.
"That’s an online survey pushed by Mark Poloncarz on Twitter," he said. "You think that’s representative of the people of Erie County? It’s not."
The survey was promoted on social media and the county website, and mentioned by local news media.
Though the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center continues to do brisk business, Visit Buffalo Niagara President Patrick Kaler said the convention center lost 861 events over the past 5 1/2 years because of its small and outdated building. That means the region is losing thousands of visitors who generate a huge economic impact, he said.
Poloncarz said that in order for the county to approach the state for financial support toward a new convention center, it must have clear answers on how much a new center would cost.