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So far this year, the brand-new Conference Center Niagara Falls has booked $5.5 million in business -- and it won't even open until May.

That's what happens when the state pays for a $19 million conference center, rigged with every technological advantage its designers could dream up. And which just happens to be across the street from the only Vegas-style casino in the state, and 10 minutes walk from Canada's premier resort.

Throw in a certain waterfall you may have heard of, and there's plenty of reasons for conference planners and convention committees to take a fresh look at Niagara Falls, said William Jackson.

"People are saying that it's been years since they looked at Niagara Falls for their event," said Jackson, the building's general manager. "Now there's a facility that can accommodate the first-class business meeting, and it's time for another look."

From its $750 fully adjustable chairs to its plasma-screen streaming video presentation rooms, "I'm confident that we're introducing an entirely new product to the marketplace," said Christopher Schoepflin, project manager for USA Niagara Development, the state's Niagara Falls development office.

"The level of finish, the level of furniture, and this level of technology will bring a whole new experience for the user, which is our goal," Schoepflin said.

The 118,000-square-foot building was vacant for nearly a decade before USA Niagara Development took it by eminent domain. A year later, it has been so thoroughly overhauled that practically the only remaining element was its structural steel, said Schoepflin, who oversees the project.

It now features a 32,200-square-foot main hall, which can hold a medium-sized convention or up to 2,000 for a sit-down dinner. It offers 15 meeting rooms of different sizes, including a Harvard-style amphitheater, and executive-style boardroom and a 5,000-square-foot reception space. Its appointments include porcelain floor tiles, paneling in blond maple and walnut, and a 9,500-square-foot exhibit space programmed by the Castellani Art Museum.

But the most unique appointments are invisible. Behind the new walls run fiber optic cables and network wiring that can connect a guest to the Internet via a wireless connection from anywhere in the building -- even the bathrooms.

It's part of a "a fully integrated converged infrastructure" inside the building, said Schoepflin. Translated from tech-speak, that means the network can handle anything today's business users can throw at it: streaming video, voice, data, and wireless connections, from room to room, or from the person at the lectern out to the world. Five T-1 lines will provide robust Internet access.

Based on its plans, the center has already been certified by the International Association of Conference Centers, he said.

A speaker could make a presentation to a roomful of people, and through the modern-day magic of videoconferencing, simultaneously appear before audiences anywhere. Participants could leave with a CD of the speech, while others, brainstorming in rooms equipped with next-generation "blackboards," could download the jottings to their laptops instead of lugging big sheets of poster paper.

That's the sort of technology that today's top-tier meeting clients expect, said David Rosenwasser, head of the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.

"Even if the tenant doesn't use everything there, they want to know they're in a contemporary building," Rosenwasser said. "If you've got the bells and whistles that only the new places have, it gives you a competitive advantage, unquestionably."

When the former Niagara Falls Convention Center was taken out of commission for use as the Seneca Niagara Casino, the city's hotels took an economic blow. With the new building being readied for a May debut, some critics have pointed out that it can't handle some of the same shows. There won't be any tractor pulls or motocross events at the Conference Center Niagara Falls.

However, those events did not sell a large number of room-nights at local hotels, which softens the impact of their loss, he said. The increased business attracted by the new facility should more than make up for it, Rosenwasser said.

The new building can be sold to entire market sectors that wouldn't have given the 1970s-era building a second glance, said Rosenwasser. "We can go after pieces of business that we would never have without this venue -- higher-end business community, training sessions for IBM or Citibank, things like that."

Since similarly equipped buildings are mostly in large cities, the Conference Center Niagara Falls should be able to offer a competitive "price-value ratio," Rosenwasser said.

So far, Sentry Hospitality, the building's operator, has booked 74 events, Sentry's William Jackson said in an interview last week. Including the value of room-nights associated with the events, the bookings are valued at $5,453,528, he said.

Considering the level of interest from other potential clients, Jackson said, he expects to dwarf that number in coming months. "The busiest time for us is going to be right after it opens," he said. "We've got a lot of groups that are waiting until it opens before they finalize, so they can see it before they book."

The banquet kitchen has been installed, capable of sending out dinner for 1,000 or more. There will also be two stand-alone restaurants, which USA Niagara is still in the process of selecting, said USA Niagara's Schoepflin.

"They've made it just a little bit different," said Bruce Kolesnick, University at Buffalo's associate director of special events.

Kolesnick, who sets up about 25 or 30 conferences a year, usually for 100 to 1,000 people, said he's already booked several events at the Conference Center Niagara Falls.

"What most people don't understand is that the hotels in this area that do have meeting space are filled," he said. "If you're trying to plan a meeting three months in advance, your chances of getting any space in Buffalo are slim."

Certainly, the building isn't going to appeal to everyone, he said. "If you want all your people together at all times, or under no circumstances do you want them outside the building, Niagara Falls would not be the place," said Kolesnick.

But the building adds a venue to sell to prospective clients, and in Western New York that can't be a bad thing. "This just adds more diversification to the mix," he said.


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