Last Friday, I got a chance to sit down with developer Mark Croce to discuss Statler City. After learning about a number of advancements with the hotel, and the storied recent history of the behemoth hotel, I figured that I could help to dispel some of the myths and rumors surrounding the place. After all, I must admit that I was not exactly clear where the hotel stood, among all of the other exciting developments taking place in the city. I asked Mark if I could bring along a photographer, and he agreed. Photographer Kim Smith shot the crux of the special event venue spaces within the building, and I caught up with Mark at a later point, to discuss the state of the hotel.
First things first. The event spaces within the hotel are firing on all cylinders, and have been for a while. When Mark first got a hold of the building six years ago, that was not the case. “The building was within a couple of months of being too foregone for anyone to save it,” Mark told me. “It was on the brink of having to wear rain coats inside. There were inches of water in the ballrooms, the ceilings were shot, and sections of the floors were buckling. I don’t think that anyone quite understands the condition of the building at the time. Developers would walk in and walk away. We caught it in the nick of time. In another month or two, the mold would have taken hold. After that even I wouldn’t have taken it.”
After purchasing the hotel, the first thing that Mark did was stop the leaking. He replaced all seven lower roofs – previous owners has simply patched what they could. From there, it took over six months to remove the humidity. Once the conditions were right, Mark knew that his first task was to get the venues within the building back to working order. If he was going to continue to put money into the building, it couldn’t just be a black hole. At that time, he contracted a facade engineering specialist to draft a plan. It took two years to complete the plan. The plan identified ways to secure the terra-cotta elements that were working their away from the building. Many of those plans are underway at this moment. Mark says that he recently took his first financial draw from The State for stabilization efforts and curb appeal improvements. That means that it won’t be long before scaffolding finally comes away rom the front of the building. It also means that he’s embarking on replacing the entire upper roof, above the 19th floor.
In the meantime, Mark has invested over $7 million into the interior of the building in order to get the venue spaces up and operational. Looking around at the Golden Ballroom, The Terrace Room and The Niagara Room (formerly The Rendezvous Room), it’s hard to imagine that just six years ago it was raining cats and dogs inside.
In the Golden Ballroom, workers needed to remove flooring from the perimeter of the room in order to bring back the original luster of the main floor. They used that flooring to patch the buckling parts in the middle, and then added a new band of wood along the outside. “My goal was to save the historic landmark,” Mark told me. “The building is now self-sustaining and back on the tax roles. It’s owned free and clear. At this point I have been meeting with potential partners who will be part of a Master Plan for the building. It’s going to take between $150-$200 million, public and private to get it done, and I’m looking for the right deal and the right terms. Along with the $7 million that I have put in, there has also been sweat equity – just look at this place and see how it is functioning. Each of the ballrooms has its own commercial kitchen – we’re serving over 350 people in 12 minutes time, and our food and service is a huge draw. We are fielding somewhere around 25 calls a day for events, mostly weddings. We’re touring people around all day. We are Buffalo’s number one wedding destination in what I consider a short period of time considering what I had to deal with.”
Mark doesn’t take all of the credit for The Statler’s financial success as a fully operational event and wedding venue. He attributes a lot of what’s underway to the brand name of the building, which he says is a huge boost for his business. “It’s all about the history,” he told me. “It seems as if everybody had a parent or a grandparent that got married here. Or a family member once worked here. A number of the rooms aren’t even being used right now because we’re already at capacity for events – we host four to six weddings a week. The Georgian Ballroom upstairs has three salon rooms. Then there’s the Cabaret Room and the Niagara Room. This building was built as a convention center hotel. An army of people worked here – it was an 1100 room hotel originally. There are three floors where they never tore out the walls – the rooms are very small… people were smaller back then.”
In order to get the entire hotel back up and operational, Mark has a few ideas of his own. He feels that one of the best plans of action would be to create a second level of the Convention Center that would traverse the street and connect with Statler City. It would be a modern glass structure that would extend over Franklin Street, where an addition would be built on top of a section of Statler City that was originally intended for a use of this nature (a fourth tower).
The project would solve a number of issues with the current Convention Center. There would be a new modern element, connectivity with hotel rooms (part of the plan), and a bar and retail, restaurant… the possibilities are endless. Mark has talked to other hoteliers in the area who also like the idea of a new West Wing, because they desperately want to Convention Center to stay where it is. Mark has entered into active conversations with Visit Buffalo Niagara (VBN), and says that he would need The City to concede air rights for $1 (and he would do the same). Since the Convention Center is also attached to the Hyatt Regency, via a pedestrian overpass, a visitor to a convention would be able to walk from Delaware Avenue all the way to Main Street – Statler City to the Convention Center to the Hyatt Regency to the Metro Rail.
Mark says that he has also identified four parking lot scenarios that would be utilized for the project. “The Convention Center does not have a single dedicated parking spot,” bemoaned Mark. “What do you think conventions look for when they are choosing convention cities? We can add more rooms, parking, retail and restaurants, and activate this building the way that it was originally intended. We will never be a first tier convention city, but if we add a 40-50K clear span space to the Convention Center, it will not only repurpose the historic Statler, it will also enhance the conventions that we are getting and draw new conventions at the same time.”
A lot of people see the exterior of Statler City and wonder what is taking so long. Others look to Mark’s other projects (including the Curtiss Hotel) and figure that it’s only a matter of time. In all actuality, Statler City is going according to plan. “The building will cost 240 bucks a square foot to compete,” explains Croce. “I’m not the guy to take it there. It’s going to take a strategic development team with capital, vision and partnerships along the way. In the meantime, I’m living up to the expectations that I put forth from the beginning. When every other big name developer turned the project down, I stepped up and I’ve been working on it ever since. What you might see on the outside of the building right now is a lot better than what you would be seeing if I hadn’t made the investment and secured the building. These things take time, and I feel that in six years I’ve built this place back up so that the right partner would come along and help me take it all the way.”