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Plenty of questions, many still unanswered, during convention center hearing

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Erie County lawmakers were given a formal presentation of two recommended sites for a new convention center and a pitch to build it. Supporters of a new venue admit there remain many unanswered questions but they insist doing nothing is an unacceptable choice.

The two options recommended by a commissioned consultant - HVS Convention, Sports and Entertainment - were introduced last month. One option is to rebuild on the current site and expand to the adjacent block on the corner of Mohawk Street and Delaware Avenue. The other option would be construction on the HSBC lot between Perry and Scott Streets.

A formal presentation of those sites was delivered following the Erie County Legislature's Economic Development Committee meeting. Upon adjournment of that session, lawmakers remained in place to get the presentation and ask questions to HSV representatives and to Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte, who represented the Poloncarz administration.

"This is a public process and I think it was important for the legislature to hear directly from the consultants that performed the study, as to the analysis they performed," said Legislature chairman Peter Savage. "Obviously this is a major community decision, No decisions are going to be made today or overnight, but I think it's important as a deliberative body that we hear from the individuals that we tasked to help bring us information."

Supporters of building a new convention center readily admit they don't have a financing plan in place. Whyte suggested New York State would have to be a significant contributor. The county will also have to borrow money. 

The estimated cost of a new convention center is set around $450 million. But Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo believes costs, including the interest on borrowing money for the project, will send the price soaring much higher.

"The annual debt service for $450 million would be about $26 million a year," he said. "I don't know where we come up with that in Erie County. The actual cost to borrow $450 million to build a new convention center, or tear down the current one and rebuilt it, would be $781 million."

Lorigo also questioned before the meeting whether Buffalo and Erie County may be pursuing an ambitious and costly project that might not necessarily draw the visitors it would be made to attract. Saying Buffalo is not Pittsburgh or Toronto or New York City, the public should also be asking if it wants to spend to get into the business of competing for larger conventions.

He credited Visit Buffalo Niagara, which was also represented at the hearing, for working to bring tourists into the region. Whyte, who is among those arguing against doing nothing, suggested to lawmakers that staying with the status quo would make the work of Visit Buffalo Niagara increasingly difficult in a few short years.

"The study indicates that won't last forever,' she said. "In the period of the next decade, that ability of (VBN's) marketing and sales team to overcome the obstacles presented by the facility itself will not be sufficient. We would be spending continuously millions of dollars to protect an unsatisfactory status quo which will only then decline further. That is documented in the study as well."

There were also different opinions as to whether the matter should go to referendum. Lorigo, who believes the 90-day public comment period now underway is inadequate, wants to see a decision to to referendum. Whyte says she has already received advice from the county's law department that New York State does not allow that option. 

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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