When the Buffalo Lakefront Development Team looks at the nearly blank canvas of Buffalo's outer harbor, it dreams big - very big.
Its $750 million development blueprint includes: a 360-slip marina at the Seaway Piers site; 1,000-plus townhouses, condominiums and apartments lining a new canal system; a boatload of amateur sports facilities and 20 acres of green space; a waterfront theater; two hotels; and a 300,000-square-foot convention center.
While that grand vision for the 120-acre site off Fuhrmann Boulevard has passed muster with a review panel and the Lakefront team has been officially selected as "preferred developer" for the harborfront land, it is drawing a mixed reaction from downtown stakeholders.
The idea of moving the city's convention business out of the downtown core is proving most controversial.
Some observers fear that it would be the death knell for the downtown hospitality industry. Others say that having a convention center and related amenities on a prime waterfront site would improve the city's ability to attract convention and tourism business.
Prominent among the critics are Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who think that putting a convention center and entertainment developments on the outer harbor - three miles from the downtown core - would spell disaster for downtown hotels, restaurants and other tourist draws.
"We should be talking about ways to build on what we already have, not creating direct competition," Masiello said. "It's the kind of thinking that resulted in a football stadium in Orchard Park and the University at Buffalo in Amherst instead of in Buffalo where they belonged. We'd be repeating the same mistake."
Giambra questions any move to replace the existing, county-owned convention center and called an outer harbor location "wacky."
"Why would you want to plop a convention center down miles from downtown? It doesn't make any sense to me," he said.
Paul L. Snyder Sr., owner of the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, is adamantly opposed to any plan that would move convention business out of the downtown core.
"Doesn't anyone care about the dozens of entrepreneurs who have their life savings already invested in existing businesses in Buffalo?" Snyder asked. ". . . We need to give people more reasons to spend time in downtown Buffalo, not ship them to the outer harbor."
Snyder said downtown hotels, including the Hyatt, which is the headquarters hotel for the convention center, already are having a tough go with occupancy rates hovering around 50 percent, leaving them extremely vulnerable if they lose convention business.
Competitiveness at issue
But not all those with downtown interests reject the concept of relocating the convention center. Richard Geiger, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that it is an idea worth investigating.
"It's no secret we've wanted to be more competitive in the convention arena for many years, and a state-of-the-art center would put us in the game," Geiger said. "I think we need to keep an open mind about the location and take a look at this."
Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said that arguments can be made on both sides but that he would like to see the harbor site investigated further.
"We need to know a lot more about what is being proposed - exactly what would be built, the timing, who would pay for it," Rudnick said.
Local government and business leaders have long searched for an alternative to the 27-year-old Buffalo Convention Center. A stack of studies dating back two decades concluded that the Franklin Street facility is outmoded and too small to be competitive for convention business.
The latest study, released in 2002, endorsed a $220 million project to build a convention center and hotel complex on the Mohawk site, an 11-acre parcel along Washington Street, between Mohawk and Washington streets in the heart of downtown.
But with no identified funding source, the plans sat in limbo. Now the availability of the Mohawk site is in question, as a new housing development and other investments have been made in the once-targeted blocks.
C. Craig Guers, vice president and general manager of Opus East, a lead partner in the Lakefront team, said a convention center was included in the outer harbor proposal only after detailed market research.
"Our analysis shows we'd increase downtown hospitality business, not steal it away, by building a first-class convention center on the outer harbor," Guers said.
The proposed center, for the southernmost end of the development site, would feature exhibit halls and associated convention quarters atop its own parking garage. An exterior highlight of the building would be a series of "sail-like" structures that appear to float along the harborfront.
Hoping for state aid
According to the Lakefront team's proposal, a large, modern center would attract more than 400,000 attendees per year, compared with the 58,000 that visit the existing center.
While the proposed outer harbor hotel would capture more than 50,000 room nights from those attending conventions and trade shows, Guers contends, an additional 127,000 visitors would end up downtown, greatly increasing demand for guest services at the Hyatt, Adam's Mark, Hampton Inn and other hotels, as well as filling up tables at downtown restaurants.
"Even if our calculations are off by 50 percent - and I can tell you they're not - this is a very good thing for downtown Buffalo, for all of Buffalo," Guers said.
He stressed that "easy transportation connections" will be critical to moving people between downtown and the outer harbor. In addition to circulating buses and roadway improvements, the developers are asking the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to consider extending Metro Rail service to the site.
The Lakefront team says the center proposed for the Mohawk site would cost $190 million and require extensive demolition, including some historic structures.
The team says a similar-size center, integrated into the outer harbor plan, could be built for about $150 million by 2007.
As for how the center would be funded, Guers said New York State's $800 million in aid for Manhattan's Javits Center opens the door for the state to write a check for the Buffalo facility.
"It's only fair to do something for Western New York, too," Guers said. "It's something we would definitely pursue."
In addition to Opus East, the Lakefront team includes Uniland Development Corp. of Amherst, VOA Associates and Urban Retail Properties, both of Chicago, and BIDCO Marine, Harris Beach LLP and Paradigm Consulting, all of Buffalo.
NFTA Chairman Luiz F. Kahl said that if the community does not want an outer harbor convention center, it will not happen: "This project doesn't hinge on a convention center. This isn't an all-or-nothing proposal."