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Unconventional Center: If You Build It, Will They Convene?

Six years ago, Buffalo’s urban renaissance hopes got a splash of cold water. Abuzz with excitement over the recently announced Buffalo Billion, and still basking in the glow from hosting the prior year’s national preservation conference, we got a stony cold rejection letter from the National Association of Sports Commissions. They weren’t interested in holding their conference here, and didn’t mind telling us why, including this:

Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities. There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.

Our attendees place a high value on the ability to access bars, restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options within walking distance.

Our convention center – now one of the oldest in the country, celebrating its 40th birthday this year – wasn’t large enough and it didn’t meet expectations. But more than that our downtown, putting it as nicely as possible, was a disgrace.

As is often the case when Buffalo receives a slight, this became a Big Deal, with an article in the Buffalo News, discussion here on Buffalo Rising, and on social media. CityLab, which at the time had just published an article questioning the continued investment by cities in convention centers, wrote about the incident as an illustration of its point.

It was certainly a low moment for Buffalo’s recovering self-image as a place where people wanted to visit and convene. Just how low the city had fallen in this regard can be seen by looking back a century.

From the top of the convention biz to the bottom

Nearly a hundred years ago, in September, 1923, John P. Kelly, Secretary of the Iron and Steel Electrical Engineers trade association, in Buffalo for his organization’s annual convention, said of the city,

We have held our exhibition in practically all the large cities of the United States, and without reservation I can say this auditorium, as it is now equipped, is the finest exposition building for industrial displays in the entire country. We have never had at our disposal better equipment, finer electrical facilities, and all the necessary machinery and facilities for putting on of displays that has been pt at our disposal in Buffalo.

In December, 1922, the Live Wire, publication of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, a precursor to today’s Buffalo-Niagara Partnership, attributed much of the convention boom to the pending opening of the Hotel Statler. The article went on to list several conventions already booked for the following year that were expected to bring a thousand people each to Buffalo. The Knights Templar were going to be bringing four thousand – not bad for an order that (I thought) was suppressed seven centuries ago. And in 1924, the American Bowling Congress would hold its annual tournament in Buffalo (because of course), bringing ten thousand bowlers over two months for a rolling series of bowl-offs (or something).

The influx of conventioneers and visitors helped draw downtown Buffalo’s commercial center of mass away from Main Street and toward Delaware Avenue and Niagara Square, both formerly genteel residential areas. Within a decade, much of lower Delaware had been transformed (as I wrote about here) from a street of mansions to one of elegant mixed-use commercial buildings providing fine dining, entertainment, and shopping. Unlike 2012, no convention planner sent Buffalo a letter complaining of boarded-up buildings and a lack of places to go and things to do for visitors.

Supplementing the Statler and other downtown hotels were other venues around the city, particularly the several armories that hosted athletic competitions, boxing matches, and the annual auto show.

But Buffalo wasn’t at the top for long. In Atlantic City, Boardwalk Hall, one of the nation’s first purpose-built, municipally owned convention venues, opened in 1929. It was pushed by a visionary, builder mayor, but also met a basic need: in a northeast city whose economy was based on summer tourism and entertainment, they needed something to keep the hotels full in the off season.

After the dual shocks of the Great Depression and World War II, other cities followed suit and began building convention centers, and they became elements of civic infrastructure. Among pioneers were the Las Vegas Convention Center, which opened in 1959, and Chicago’s McCormick Place, originally envisioned before the Great Depression, begun in 1958, and opened in 1960. Other cities, to stay in the game, also built convention centers, igniting something of a convention center arms race.

By the early 1970s, Buffalo leaders were ready to jump in the game. But city taxpayers? Not so much. They circulated petitions to force a referendum on the spending, and defeated it in 1973. Mayor Stanley Makowski, not to be deterred, reached out to Erie County and the New York State Urban Development Corporation to get the project done. By the end of his single term, it was under construction.

But the process hung the convention center, originally a city project, around the neck of Erie County, where it has remained ever since. And it’s not just an albatross, but a deeply flawed one. Building it required the demolition of two entire blocks of mixed-use buildings that otherwise would have been among the ones we would now be rehabbing to bring back downtown vibrancy. They were replaced by a single-use dead zone. Along Pearl Street, two blocks of storefronts and offices were replaced by a blank, concrete wall. Two streets, including the radial Genesee Street, were brutally cut off. The building itself was ably described by Buffalo Pundit as the City Court building laid on its side.

Aside from design, the convention center was inadequate almost from the day it opened. Within a decade, Erie County was looking to walk away from the convention center and build something new somewhere else, but wasn’t able to make it happen before the city and county together hit rock bottom. In many ways, our convention center became an emblem of a place stuck in an industrial past that couldn’t get out of its own way – especially the brutalist marquee/kiosk (marqueeosk?) that was as intractably broke as we were. WNYMedia dubbed it “The Failsign.”

Enter Mark Poloncarz

After the public drubbing Buffalo took in early 2012, the first hint that our convention center’s days might be numbered came that fall. During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, County Executive Mark Poloncarz tweeted some thumbs up for the Charlotte convention center and some thumbs down for Buffalo’s.

The following year, he included a new convention center in a 12-point economic development plan, and in 2014 he mentioned it in his State of the County address and created a committee. He would be seeking funding for a feasibility study. In contrast to the mistake of the 1970s, he wanted to proceed in a cautious, deliberative way toward a new or expanded convention center, even if it meant taking some time. Two top county officials quoted in Buffalo Business First said that if a new convention center were to be considered, it would have to be in the “main spine of the central business district and not on some outlying property.” A convention center can’t be an island, they pointed out correctly.

The study got underway in earnest last year. At the time, Poloncarz made an important point, as quoted in the Buffalo News:

Past efforts to construct a new convention center have failed, but Poloncarz said he’s not looking for a new convention center just because the existing one is too old and too small. He wants one because the region can now compete better than before with other major metro areas in terms of amenities, attractions and hotels.

The convention center should not be the weak link keeping Buffalo from being a worthwhile travel destination, he said.

“We’re now moving into a bigger league.”

Earlier this year, the Poloncarz administration went back to the county legislature seeking additional funding to study additional sites and explore in more detail the size and amenities needed to compete with other markets like Charlotte, but was turned down. That could prove problematic for the integrity of the study, presumably intended to be comprehensive. Also problematic was the lack of any opportunity for community input while the study was underway, an unfortunate characteristic it shares with the ECC facilities study of 2012. And, oddly given the subject of the study, that lack of input seems to extend to the business community – Jim Fink of Buffalo Business First told WBFO that he has talked with a number of people in the business community and in real estate development who didn’t have the chance to weigh in.

 

In the end, the study was able to consider a half dozen or so sites, and recommended the two that came out at the top of the study’s site rating and ranking rubric: an expanded convention center at the existing site that would incorporate some of the Statler but also require demolishing an entire city block, and a brand new convention center on the parking lots behind the Buffalo News and the HSBC Atrium. The administration is asking residents to read the study (here) and weigh in on whether we should move forward or not, and if so, where. (Note: while comments are of course welcome on this article, the county will only consider comments formally submitted to the county.)

Pros and cons

All along, but especially since the study’s release, there have been conflicting views about what Buffalo should do regarding the convention business and its inadequate facilities.

Among those saying we need a new convention center are, no surprise, our convention and visitors’ bureau, Visit Buffalo-Niagara, and members of the business community. Among those saying no way or no thanks to this project or new convention centers in general are some urbanists and economists.

Here’s a curation with some of both.

Pro:

Buffalo Pundit, September 2012

Buffalo Business First, “783 Reasons Why Buffalo Needs a New Convention Center”

Con:

Nicholas Tyler Miller, BRO guest post, March, 2012

CityLab, June, 2012

Bruce Fisher, September, 2018

Both sides have valid points but also, I think, miss an important part of the big picture: among other things this project is, essentially, an opportunity to remake an entire section of downtown, perhaps largely on someone else’s dime.

You are what you build

Everyone has heard Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The same could be said for cities: as a city, to a great extent, what you build – and how – determines what kind of city you become. Early on, many cities are the product of geography, and that was certainly so for early Buffalo. But when a city grows to attract the resources to build beyond individual dwellings and shops, building projects can have far-reaching consequences far into the future. The convention center is the latest in two centuries of such projects and decisions.

Buffalo – and New York State – is what it is largely because Dewitt Clinton pushed to use the latest transportation technology, the canal, in a visionary way to tie the state together. Buffalo is what it is because local leaders, when the state was content to terminate the canal at Black Rock Harbor, built a better harbor. Buffalo is what it is because it was originally laid out by a surveyor who had learned the then-best thinking in urban planning from L’Enfant and had the vision to apply it to a then-frontier settlement.

Charlotte Convention Center

Buffalo is what it is because leaders, in recognizing the lack of parks to serve a burgeoning population, brought in the best thinkers on urban parks, and backed their visionary plan that applied then-best thinking citywide.

The same can be said for institutions – civic, religious, commercial. Buffalo is what it is because Bishop Timon, seeing Buffalo Catholics struggling in a Protestant-dominated city, launched the building of a Catholic infrastructure in Buffalo that grew to rival anything in the nation. Buffalo is what it is because Rev. Jan Pitass and Joseph Bork undertook to create (as I wrote about here) what became one of the largest Polish settlements in America. Buffalo is what it is because industry attracted top talent and those seeking a better life from southern states and strife-torn places around the world.

A more recent example especially relevant to the convention center project is Harbor Center. Buffalo has long been a hockey town, but in creating Harbor Center the Pegulas showed the vision to turn Buffalo into a kind of hockey mecca. A recent tweet from Nik Fattey, VP of HarborCenter, reads:

Along these lines, could a substantial convention center put Buffalo back in the forefront of the convention business, as it was a century ago? Not at the top nationally, because Buffalo has lost her stature as one of the nation’s largest cities, and because we will never be able to compete with destinations such as the Javits Center, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and McCormick Place.

But with the right facilities, including a substantial exhibit hall, Buffalo has the potential to be one of the top convention cities among second-tier destinations. Large stretches of contiguous space is critical for handling some larger events, and currently just a few second-tier cities have convention centers with exhibit halls of 200,000 square feet or more of contiguous space, as this chart from the Buffalo News shows:

With help from the consultants, Erie County has set a goal of a new facility with an exhibit hall of 150,000 square feet. That seems graspable, but should we reach for more?

A separate report released last summer – ironically, on the 40th birthday of the convention center – showed that the shortcomings of our convention facilities are primarily responsible for holding back Buffalo as a destination.

Buffalo is close to a substantial portion of the population of the US and Canada. Buffalo is a college town, with one of the top public universities in the northeast. Year by year, it seems, Buffalo is getting smarter about leveraging its higher ed sector, and developing a startup culture. Buffalo is also just down the road from one of the places that everyone in the world wants to visit: Niagara Falls. It’s no accident that our current convention center is branded as “Buffalo-Niagara.”

Cleveland Convention Center

Of course, these aren’t the only factors affecting the convention business. Those who broker conventions don’t just look for square feet of exhibit space, but also hotel capacity and visitor experience: what is the city like around the hotels and convention center, and are there places in walking distance for good food, entertainment, and nightlife? In regard to these, downtown Buffalo falls short, and building new space alone won’t change that.

As Patrick Kaler, President and CEO of Visit Buffalo-Niagara told Buffalo Business First in 2014, “But you have to have the amenities to support a convention. You can’t make the convention center an island that stands out by itself.”

So could Buffalo take this convention center leap of faith? Yes. But should we, and – especially in regard to the condition of downtown – are we ready to?

Yes, if…

Yes, if: the state pays for all or most of the project. The likelihood of a substantial state commitment by a Buffalo-boosting governor was an important factor behind the county’s decision to get things moving now, as Poloncarz said here. And it certainly seems likely. The results of the study, completed in July, were announced the week after the governor’s overwhelming primary win. And one insider has told me that the state is discouraging other projects in the region that could compete with a new Buffalo convention center. At the same time, the governor is also poised to invest a billion dollars in convention center infrastructure in New York City, a longtime priority for him. Like when you go to the kitchen for a drink, and your spouse asks, “Where’s mine?,” when the state is spending big on an infrastructure project downstate can be a great time to seek funding for a similar, but naturally smaller, project here.

Yes, if: we can site and design a new convention center that is flexible enough to expand if necessary or, what may be more likely, shrink if changes in technology and business practices cause convention center bookings to fall off precipitously. If the industry trends to, say, fewer and fewer but larger and larger events, then fewer and fewer larger cities would be able to stay in that game. If so, a design flexible enough to be easily expanded could help keep us in the game. Or, if we decide to let that go, a design flexible enough to let us downsize and repurpose some space for other uses could help keep us from having a partially vacant white elephant.

Nashville Convention Center

Yes, if: we can leverage the project to revitalize an area of downtown – a downtown that is still largely dilapidated and hollowed out. That has to be the goal with any downtown project, because only by doing so can we – piece by piece – renew a downtown still showing the effects of decades of neglect. But more to the point, if convention brokers and visitors see glitzy promotional material about our new facility, but arrive to find the same shabby surroundings, that’s not good enough.

Yes, if: we can use this project to fix one or more of the post-war urban mistakes that have marred a downtown that otherwise has good bones and a great urban form – perhaps even greater than many urban planners realize, and certainly greater than most leaders and public officials realize, or they wouldn’t be making the poorly considered plans and decisions we still see. If we can’t turn that around and change how we do downtown with this project, then is there really any hope that we’ll ever start getting it right? More than any other project, this is the one where we have to do that, because a shiny new jewel in the same tarnished setting isn’t the kind of ring that a prospective visitor is going to accept from an old suitor asking for another chance.

Next: If a new convention center, then where?

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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