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“If you build it, they will stay.”

So prophesied Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, Thursday evening of the Buffalo Bills’ long-term future in the Queen City during a community forum at Erie Community College’s downtown campus designed to spark enthusiasm for a proposed massive waterfront project that would include a 72,000-seat domed stadium.

Grant, along with Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, D-Buffalo, representatives from the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester and principal partners from the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Complex, issued a public “call to action” to gather momentum for the $1.4 billion project aimed at attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the outer harbor.

“It brings downtown and the central business district down to the waterfront,” said George F. Hasiotis, a principal in the proposed project with Nicholas J. Stracick.

The group is looking to nail down an option on the outer harbor land to get the wheels in motion for not only the year-round stadium but other projects there, such as a collateral North American Museum of Sports run by the Strong museum.

With the land option, the group would be able to approach the National Football League with the proposal and then have a set amount of time to work “with a vengeance to build this project within the next five to seven years,” Hasiotis said.

“We’re making progress with elected officials in Western New York,” he added. “The governor has to realize this is the project he’s been talking about. There’s nothing on his list of potential projects that compares to something like this.”

The smattering of a couple of dozen area residents – ranging from casually dressed urban dwellers to businessmen in suits – who found their way to the forum liked what they saw of the ideas and enthusiasm.

“This is an amazing, bold vision that I haven’t seen in 44 years in Buffalo,” said one resident, who suggested the group consider proceeding in phases to make the massive pie-in-the-sky dream come true one piece at a time.

Added another, who said he left Buffalo in 1984 and spent his last 28 years in New York City: “When I left, Buffalo was a city that was flat on its back. When I came back last year, I saw a city that was up on one knee, trying to get up.”

It’s a project that already has the interest of G. Rollie Adams, the Strong museum’s chief executive officer, and Scott G. Eberle, a Buffalo resident who is vice president of the museum.

“We will work just as hard to anchor this site,” said Eberle of the proposed Strong sports museum, which Strong officials believe will attract 600,000 or more visitors annually, more than the Bills and 26 other NFL teams.

Adams said the planned sports museum will celebrate not just big-time athletes but also “all of us.” Adams envisions the museum having what he called a collaborative working relationship with the baseball, football and basketball halls of fame to bring in sports-themed exhibits and artifacts.

Other dignitaries at Thursday’s forum included Bernard Tolbert, senior vice president for security for the National Basketball Association and former special-agent-in-charge of the Buffalo office of the FBI, and Assemblyman David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, who endorsed the proposal.

“To be blunt, I think this is a great project. The first thing I told Nick [Stracick} to do is to keep the politicians out of it,” said DiPietro. “If we want to keep the Buffalo Bills here, we have to get everybody on board and move forward.”

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com