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College swimming championships that filled hotel rooms and brought roughly 1,000 people to Buffalo each February for the last 17 years have been lured to a newer swim complex in Ohio.
But as the Atlantic 10 Conference swimming and diving competition moves on, officials at Erie Community College's Burt Flickinger Athletic Center on the City Campus believe that work on the facility this summer addressed "wear and tear" that jeopardized a lineup of late winter swim competitions that pump dollars into local hotels and restaurants each year.
The downtown athletic center will reopen Tuesday after a $6 million renovation to replace a leaking roof and upgrade the building's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system - work seen as crucial by those who host major swim competitions in Buffalo.
"When you bring in people from all over the country, and you also have kids coming in from all over the world, as well, you want it to be first-class," said Rick Aronberg, head coach for STAR Swimming, a regional swim club that draws swimmers from throughout the Northeast to the Flickinger Center for meets.
The loss of the Atlantic 10 swim competition will hit hotels during a typically slow time of the year. The four-day event sold about 1,300 room nights at local hotels in February, according to Visit Buffalo Niagara.
"It was especially a bit of a sting because it was in the winter months, and it's something we always count on," said Julie Williams, director of sales for the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. "So we certainly hope to capture it back."
While the Atlantic 10 competition will move in February to a pool in Geneva, Ohio, the Flickinger Center will continue to hold other large meets next year, including the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference swimming and diving championships.
Brad Boyle, natatorium manager at the Flickinger Center, said the work done this summer will help the facility remain competitive as a venue for major swim meets.
The athletic center was closed for several months to replace the roof and the air system. That will address concerns that the aging building had become difficult to ventilate when hundreds of swimmers gathered for meets.
A roof that dripped water into the pool area also has been replaced.
"What ECC is doing is going to be remarkable not just for ECC, but all the outside organizations that come in," said Aronberg, who coaches about 200 swimmers through the STAR Swimming program at the Flickinger Center. "They'll be using the facility. It should even make ECC that much stronger in terms of bringing in money to Erie County."
Aronberg said large swim meets draw hundreds of young swimmers and their parents who eat in local restaurants, stay in hotels and sometimes stay an extra day to visit Niagara Falls.
Boyle said that during the next year, ECC officials plan to add a new video scoreboard, refurbish a movable bulkhead that divides the 50-meter pool and replace the starting blocks.
"Those are just a few of the things that we're looking to do to bring our facility on par with some of the newer facilities that are being built with technology in mind," Boyle said.
The Spire Institute, where the Atlantic 10 championships will be held in February, opened its aquatic center in late 2011. The Flickinger Center opened in 1993 for the World University Games, and Aronberg said that "wear and tear" had taken its toll prior to the renovation work this summer.
Boyle said that it is disappointing to lose the Atlantic 10 event, which was hosted by St. Bonaventure University, but that he believes the improved Flickinger Center will be able to bid on it again.
Seventeen years proved to be a long run for a swim competition that often rotates among venues, Boyle said. "There have always been people who just wanted to move just for a change of scenery, which happens a lot," he said. "We might have an event that's here two or three years in a row, and then they move to another venue."

email: djgee@buffnews.com