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CUSTOMERS LINING UP EVENTS AS CONFERENCE CENTER SHAPES UP

CUSTOMERS LINING UP EVENTS AS CONFERENCE CENTER SHAPES UP

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NIAGARA FALLS -- Eleven weeks before its inaugural event, the drywall is still going up inside Conference Center Niagara Falls.

But customers are already lining up to take advantage of the new $17 million facility built by state government, said general manager William Jackson. So far, 58 customers have booked events, ranging from a banquet fund-raiser for about 100 to a convention of 2,000.

That's a little over $3 million in business so far, counting conference center revenue and estimated room nights, said Jackson. Contracts are signed as far ahead as 2008.

"What we hear from people is that it's been years since we've been to Niagara Falls," he said. "I think there's a desire to come back to Niagara Falls, but there's never been a facility that would accommodate those kinds of groups."

The conference center will attract customers from the tourism trade, Jackson said. The biggest operation in town, the Seneca Niagara Casino, is directly across the street, in what used to be the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center.

"The first thing we're going to do is try to book the whole building for New Year's Eve," said Seneca Casino head Mickey Brown. "Secondly, we're trying to book an entertainment group that needs 2,000 seats and put something on there in June, do a date or two."

Singer Alice Cooper, who easily sold out the casino's Bears Den space last year, "would be a lot easier to put in there," said Brown.

The conference center "gives us the ability to entertain five times as many people at one show," he said. "It's a great advantage to us, and we plan on using the facility for this and other such events."

Still, it's the business meeting trade that will make the center a unique offering in the market, Jackson said. The building will be wired to today's corporate standards, from the display televisions capable of handling streaming video feeds to fiber-optic communication systems for teleconferencing.

The entire building will have wireless Internet access. "Even the bathrooms," Jackson said with a chuckle.

Right now, though, Jackson has been focused on getting Niagara Falls' newest attraction outfitted in proper style.

"We have a time line for everything we're doing, like ordering china, glass and silver," he said.

Everything from forklifts, to barricades for concerts, to snowblowers and entryway rugs has to be added to the building's inventory. Today, about 90 construction workers toil six days a week to finish off the interiors, with the exterior finishing on tap in the next week or two.

"The entire 32,000 square feet of finished concrete has been poured for the exhibit hall, and all the glass is in," he said. April will bring rug installers, painters and other interior finishers.

Since the building is still in hard-hat condition, prospective clients have also been pitched in the offices of Sentry Management, the building's operator.

"We bring people in and show them the interior boards and swatches of carpet, things like that," Jackson said. "They get a pretty good idea of the quality that will be there."

Customers have a chance to test-drive a sample of the conference room chairs, tinker with the lumbar support and practically a dozen knobs to adjust. "These are extremely comfortable desk chairs, not banquet chairs," Jackson said. "You could sit on them for 10 or 12 hours if you had to."

Those are the kind of things, together with the technological offerings, that make people understand this isn't going to be like every other meeting facility, said Jackson.

The building can't handle every event the old convention center did, but it should do more events and inject more money into the local economy, Jackson said. "It is not designed for tractor pulls, rodeos and circuses," he said. "But those events did not attract overnight accommodations."

The building plan also includes two restaurants, and responses to a request for proposals are currently being analyzed, said Chris Schoepflin. He's a senior project manager for USA Niagara Development, the state development office responsible for the center's creation.

"We are analyzing the submissions that were made on Jan. 31, and we expect to be forthcoming with some decisions in the next 30 to 45 days." said Schoepflin.

USA Niagara is interviewing all of the submitters, he said. It's not clear yet whether one company would handle both the center's banquet kitchen and the stand-alone restaurant, Schoepflin said.

"There are still a lot of possibilities for that space, and we're exploring our options," he said.

After the building's officially in business, starting May 21, bookings should accelerate, said Jackson. "We have so many people who want to come and see it finished," he said. "That's when business is going to start flowing, we believe."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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