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Major hurdle cleared for Pierce-Arrow museum expansion

Plans are moving forward to turn the Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum into the largest auto museum in the world.

The nonprofit museum bought a building and parking lot on Exchange Street, directly behind its exhibit space at 263 Michigan Ave. and Seneca Street.

Now the museum just has to acquire two streets from the City of Buffalo to make the expansion possible. Plans call for extending the museum east to Chicago Street, creating a projected 300,000-square-foot exhibit space, said James Sandoro, who, with his wife Mary Ann, co-founded the museum.

"This is a dream my wife and I have had, and the dream is coming to fruition," said Sandoro, 75. "We only have so much time on this planet, and we're trying to get everything done and leave a blueprint for future generations."

Sandoro expects an enlarged museum, possibly with walkways between buildings, would cost $20 million and be completed in three years.

The extra space would allow about 250,000 artifacts now stored in nearby buildings to be displayed. They include a large bicycle collection, racetrack and railroad memorabilia, and larger vehicles, such as Mack trucks and fire trucks.

In pursuing the expansion, Sandoro is confident that if the Buffalo Bills build a downtown stadium, the stadium footprint would not include the museum. A state-commissioned study released in January 2015 identified Seneca Street between Michigan Avenue and Chicago Street – the length of the expanded museum – as one of three potential downtown sites for a new stadium.

Sandoro said he spoke in the past with city officials about acquiring Carroll Street and North Carroll Place, and they seemed to share the view that an expanded museum would be a good attraction for Buffalo. But Sandoro said he first had to acquire the one-story steel building at 186 Exchange St. and the parking lot, now leased to the U.S. Social Security Administration and the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.

"The whole thing was acquisition," Sandoro said. "You need ownership. I couldn't go to the city without owning both sides of the street, and now that's possible."

The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee did something similar in acquiring nearby streets to form one campus, he said.

The building's lease expires in May 2020, but the tenants may need additional time to relocate, Sandoro said.

The Buffalo Transportation/Pierce-Arrow Museum acquired the former Ethox property – four connected buildings ranging in size from 2 to 3½ stories between Chicago and Carroll Place, spanning around 200,000 square feet – in November 2014. The current museum has 65,000 square feet, and the building just purchased has 35,000, Sandoro said.

An auction was recently held at the Ethox property to sell off machinery, and workers are starting to prepare the building as a museum space, Sandoro said.

The transportation museum attracted about 30,000 visitors in 2018, Sandoro said, with out-of-town visitors up almost 10 percent. About half the people came to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station, an exhibit Sandoro built from unused Wright drawings.

"It's a major draw," Sandoro said. "We thought it would be fantastic to do it and that it would be a great draw for Buffalo. People are awestruck. They say, 'I can't believe that you built this,' or that it would have ever existed at Michigan and Cherry."

An expanded museum, with outdoor events and more parking now possible on the recently purchased land, would be an international destination, Sandoro predicted.

"It's going to be good for Buffalo," he said.

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