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The game changers: Six decisions that will shape Buffalo for years to come

The game changers: Six decisions that will shape Buffalo for years to come

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There are some big decisions looming – and how those issues are decided will have a lasting impact on the Buffalo Niagara region for years, if not decades, to come.

The decisions won't be made in isolation, either. Whatever way they're decided, the result will send out ripples that will affect businesses, residents and how the Buffalo Niagara region is perceived elsewhere.

In many cases, they won't be cheap. Hundreds of millions of dollars – some of it coming from local taxpayers – also hang in the balance, depending on how local leaders decide to proceed.

The decisions have the potential to be transformative if they play out in a way that maximizes potential and the projects aren't derailed by high costs. In some cases, they also have the potential to be a harbinger for whether the region wants to think big and spend big, or whether it's prudent to be responsible with taxpayer money.

The stakes are high. Bad decisions can have a lasting impact that holds the region back. In the 1980s, local leaders bet the future of downtown Buffalo on a pair of big decisions: Building the Metro Rail and turning the heart of downtown into a pedestrian mall, devoid of cars.

Those decisions didn't turn out well: The 6-mile Metro Rail never was extended to the suburbs, limiting its usefulness to commuters. And pedestrian malls – the rage among urban planners at the time Buffalo decided it needed one – turned out to be a passing fad that quickly lost their appeal to car-loving Americans. Buffalo now is spending more than $60 million to bring cars back to Main Street.

So the pressure is on for the region to choose wisely. Either way, the decisions will shape the region for years to come.

Here's a look at six big decisions facing the Buffalo Niagara region and what's at stake with each one.

A Bills stadium

The issue: The Buffalo Bills' lease at New Era Field expires in 2023, when the Orchard Park stadium will turn 50, ancient by modern stadium standards. Lease negotiations will hinge heavily on whether to renovate New Era Field or build a new stadium, possibly downtown. Bills owners Kim and Terry Pegula have commissioned a study on the issue and have not said which option they prefer, though Terry Pegula has said a new or renovated football stadium would be "Buffalo style."

What's at stake: A downtown stadium would be costly, possibly more than $1 billion, and would almost certainly command huge taxpayer subsidies. But a downtown location, possibly not far from KeyBank Center, also could bring upward of 70,000 fans into the city on 10 or so game days each year. Renovating New Era Field again would cost much less in a small NFL market where it's harder to sell the high-priced luxury suites and stadium seating that are prominent in many new stadiums.

• • •

A convention center

The issue: The region's convention center is 40 years old, outdated and widely regarded as being too small to host major events. Erie County this summer agreed to spend nearly $250,000 to study whether to build a convention center at a new site or expand the existing one. Others have wondered whether the region should even try to compete for major events that require an elaborate convention center, instead focusing on attracting regional events that require a smaller facility and would be more likely to host an event in a midsize city like Buffalo.

What's at stake: Nothing less than the Buffalo Niagara region's future in the convention business. A new center – costing hundreds of millions – would open the door to meetings and conventions that now don't consider Buffalo. It would bring more visitors to town, helping to fill downtown hotels and restaurants, while exposing those visitors to other local attractions, from Niagara Falls to local architecture and museums. Critics wonder whether Buffalo can ever truly compete with the likes of Las Vegas, New York City or Los Angeles and question whether a new convention center would be taxpayer money well spent.

• • •

Tesla: Boom or bust

The issue: It's time for Tesla Inc. to deliver on its promises to the Buffalo Niagara region. The electric vehicle maker has to have 1,460 workers at its sprawling factory in South Buffalo by April. If it doesn't, the state, which spent more than $950 million to build and equip the plant, must decide whether to impose a $41.3 million penalty. Tesla's development of its solar roof, expected to be a main product in Buffalo, has been slow. It's on its third version and still isn't being installed widely. To fill the plant, Tesla has moved electronic component assembly work for its superchargers to the factory, built as part of the Buffalo Billion.

What's at stake: The Tesla factory was envisioned by the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a transformative project that would create good-paying, 21st century jobs in a downtrodden city, while spurring other investments in a booming green energy industry. That hasn't happened yet, with Tesla's entry-level production jobs paying around $16 an hour. And if the solar roof and Tesla's shriveled conventional solar energy business don't take off, the dreams that the factory will be a catalyst for the region's economy could come crashing down. Imposing a penalty could damage the state's relationship with Tesla.

• • •

So long, Skyway?

The issue: On nice days, the elevated highway makes commuting from the Southtowns much easier. On snowy days, the Skyway usually closes, creating traffic jams that Southtowners dread. On a larger scale, the Skyway divides the city from the waterfront and cuts an ugly swath through Canalside. Other cities have removed elevated highways. The Cuomo administration and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, are pushing for Buffalo to do it. Cost is an issue: Cuomo estimates it could cost $600 million; Higgins thinks it would be far less.

What's at stake: Getting rid of the Skyway would change the entire view of downtown, especially along the waterfront. It would free up potentially valuable land near the water. And it would be a big step toward increasing waterfront access and making that area more appealing to visit. But there are 42,000 trips over the Skyway on an average day, and figuring out how to reroute those travelers, without turning the Southtowns commute into a frustrating crawl, is an unanswered question at this point, and so is the funding.

• • •

Metro Rail extension

The issue: It's been 35 years since the Metro Rail opened, running from downtown Buffalo to the University at Buffalo's South Campus. But hopes to expand the line into Amherst never materialized, making the system less relevant for suburban riders and less useful as a tool to get commuters to use public transportation. After years of inactivity, the notion of expanding the Metro Rail gained new momentum last spring when the state allocated $6 million for an engineering study to expand the 6.4-mile rail line to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

What's at stake: Extending the rail line into Amherst would push it into a busy commercial and educational district of the suburbs. It would give suburban commuters a more appealing public transportation option into downtown and make it easier for downtown residents to get to UB and a main suburban shopping district. But it would be very expensive, with some estimates pegging the cost at $1.7 billion, making it a big challenge to gain funding from the project. The bulk of the money for any extension would have to come from Washington.

• • •

Building on the waterfront

The issue: The runaway success of Canalside and the steady improvement in the Outer Harbor have been one of the region's biggest success stories, turning a largely forgotten, barren stretch into a magnet for tourists, residents and spinoff development. Canalside is the more developed portion, with the Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum now open, a carousel and longshed under construction and plans for a pair of six-story and one five-story buildings in the works. The Outer Harbor is less developed, with vast stretches of undeveloped land.

What's at stake: How much development is too much? Will tall buildings at Canalside provide the shopping, restaurants and residents needed to take the area to the next level, or destroy its current charm by filling in open space? A study last year done for the state agency overseeing the area envisions the Outer Harbor as a largely passive recreation area. A report backed by a coalition of citizen and environmental group wants the Outer Harbor to be turned into a state park. Another group is studying what to do with the massive – and vacant – Terminal A building in the heart of the Outer Harbor.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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