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Delaware Avenue offers advantages for a new convention center

It’s a good place to start when considering a new convention center. It may also turn out to be a good place to finish.

The proposal to build a new Erie County Convention Center on Delaware Avenue just north of Statler City offers a range of attractive advantages including location, cost and capacity. Most of all, it affirmatively answers the question Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz posed almost 1 1/2 years ago: Do we want to stay in the convention business?

We do, because it would be crazy not to.

Tvsdesign, an Atlanta-based engineering and architectural firm that specializes in convention centers, has examined three possible locations, eliminating two over the same issues that it favored in the Delaware Avenue option.

A location between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue, mainly parking lots used by HSBC, The Buffalo News and others, would have cost $606.4 million to build, 37% more than the $441.7 estimated for the preferred site. That, alone, could be a killer. In addition, that site is close to little of the city’s hotel stock, a significant weakness.

The other rejected proposal, pushed by the late Mark Croce, who owned Statler City, would have connected that structure to the existing convention center, with new exhibition space built over Franklin Street. It could have helped assure the success of the Statler, which is still largely vacant, but it would have provided insufficient space while being structurally difficult to build, according to Tvsdesign,

The Delaware Avenue proposal would take over space largely occupied by a parking lot – a poor use of space in an economically improving city. One historic building on that block would be incorporated into the convention center’s design, while the other would be relocated.

The site would provide between 180,000 and 235,000 square feet of meeting space, far more than the 102,000 square feet provided by the existing and – let’s be honest – hideous structure. And it is close to a number of downtown attractions, restaurants and hotels, including the neighboring Statler City. If that’s not as good for the historic hotel as a physical connection, it’s the next best thing and a significant boost for the building’s prospects.

The proposal would also have the welcome effect of restoring Genesee Street to its radial design, creating space for a new triangular park and showing off the 119-year-old YMCA building, now largely hidden.

The architects discounted the possibility of combining a new convention center with a new football stadium for several plausible reasons.

While that concept was popular several years ago, the consultants say, it has faded, in part because idle stadiums hold no attraction for conventiongoers. And when the stadium is full, the hordes and the noise they produce can create a conflict.

What is more, while a downtown stadium remains a possibility for Buffalo, no such plan exists today. Delaware Avenue is the bird in the hand.

As Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte noted on Wednesday, while building a new convention center will incur significant costs, doing nothing is also an expensive proposition. The county is losing money now.

The current facility’s inadequate size and punishing design – “This is a great place to go if you’re a prison,” Poloncarz said Thursday – makes it both insufficient and undesirable for many conventions. As it exists, it can host only one event at a time. To its economic disadvantage, the county is maintaining a “functionally obsolete” building.

By contrast, the Delaware Avenue proposal would open other possibilities. It could host hundreds more events a year, including some that occur simultaneously. Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, estimated it would generate $30 million and $35 million in new economic impact, nearly doubling the $40 million produced by the existing building. That’s significant.

The cost of construction will be a hurdle, but advocates are already working on that, hoping in part for help from Albany. And opposition will appear, as it always does in Buffalo. It will be important to listen as new information helps to shape the discussion. But for a county that wants to stay in the convention business, this counts as a good start.

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