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Buffalo Place considers expansion of 'business improvement district'

Leaders of Buffalo Place are thinking about expanding the downtown business improvement district to cover a wider area of Buffalo's core, as the city makes new investments in streetscape and other infrastructure that could be at risk of deterioration if not regularly maintained.

At the request of city officials, the nonprofit organization that runs the district has begun discussions about what would be needed for an expansion, both in terms of the services that would be sought and the financial resources necessary to pay for them.

Founded in 1982 by property owners and political leaders seeking to revive a 24-block area, Buffalo Place is responsible for overseeing and promoting downtown as an area bounded by Pearl and Washington streets, and running from Goodell Street in the north to the Buffalo River in the south.

The organization markets the district, sponsors programs, coordinates major events, encourages new businesses and development, provides security and seeks to improve access to downtown. Perhaps most significantly, its crew maintains the sidewalks, trees, decorations, benches, lights and entertainment or recreation features along the streets that aren't handled by the city – including snow removal.

It works with city agencies, police and local businesses, and its $2.3 million budget is primarily funded by a "special charge" or tax, that all property owners in the district must pay, on top of regular property taxes.

The original legislation that created Buffalo Place allows the district to operate from Elm Street on the east to Elmwood Avenue on the west, but it's been concentrated until now along Main, as well as the cross streets between them.

Now that might change. The city, in conjunction with Buffalo Place, is working on a range of streetscape improvements for Chippewa, Franklin, Court and Ellicott streets, involving significant investments in infrastructure. The question is what happens later.

"That’s where the city is investing their money and they’re looking to Buffalo Place to provide services," said Buffalo Place Executive Director Michael Schmand.

But there's some pressure on Buffalo Place to do more – including adding more operations staff for maintenance and security at night.

"We've got to raise the bar because there's more demand for services given how successful we've been," said Chairman Keith Belanger, a senior vice president at M&T Bank Corp.

For example, Belanger said, the city is not responsible for plowing the sidewalk in front of buildings. Within its district, Buffalo Place does that, if the building owner doesn't get to it first. And there's still the issue of what to do with the snow once its plowed – a problem that is getting worse as traditional dumping grounds get taken up by cars and new buildings.

"Depending on what sort of infrastructure you put in place, you have to have a way to maintain it," Belanger said. "If just concrete, OK, they can handle that. If it’s more, unless you have an organization tasked with doing it, it doesn’t get done."

So discussions are now underway to figure out what would be required, what would it cost, and how much are other property owners willing to pay.

"We’re really just looking to try to ensure that the infrastructure investment that we’re looking to do in downtown is going to be maintained," said Brandye Merriweather, vice president for downtown development for Buffalo Urban Development Corp. "There's a number of things on the table, but since Buffalo Place is such a great strategic partner, we figured we’d start here."

Buffalo Place scaled back its services a few years ago, after its Thursday summer concert series moved to Canalside and the state awarded the management contract there to a Philadelphia company and then to Rich Products Corp. affiliate Be Our Guest.

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