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Not long ago, the hulking grain elevators dotting the Buffalo River appeared to many as unwelcome reminders of a faded industrial past.

Now, as several major Canalside projects are under way, they’re a big part of the next grand undertaking for the waterfront.

The old grain elevator across from Canalside’s Central Wharf will be the canvas for a permanent year-round static and kinetic light show that casts a kaleidoscope of colors and images of Buffalo.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency that oversees the waterfront, has been putting together the project for some time.

Wednesday it is expected to approve spending $5 million for the first phase that, in addition to the light show on the grain elevator, also includes lighting the Michigan and Ohio street bridges that cross the Buffalo River, two areas of General Mills and the underside of the Skyway. An opening is anticipated for the summer or fall of next year.

And that’s just the first phase of an ambitious project designed to attract national attention.

The second and much grander vision is to illuminate 14 grain elevators in all – 13 along the river, plus the Pool elevator in Lake Erie – as public art. The biggest attraction would be a spectacle with the potential to incorporate 3-D video projection, fire, smoke, sound, pyrotechnics and other special effects onto the old silo across from Canalside, aka the Connecting Terminal, at the edge of the outer harbor.

“This is the new Buffalo. We’re doing things differently now,” said Thomas Dee, executive director of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. “We’re no longer the city that couldn’t do this or do that.

“If all of the grain elevators are lit going up the river and book-ending the outer harbor, it would be like something you haven’t seen anywhere.”

The project represents the convergence of art, historic preservation, regional history and architecture under way on a grass-roots level in recent years, and which Visit Buffalo Niagara, the city’s visitor and tourism bureau, has used to rebrand Buffalo and Western New York.

“It’s a bold statement that says Buffalo has arrived and is staking its claim as a world-class cultural tourism destination,” said Ed Healy, Visit Buffalo Niagara’s vice president of marketing. “Were making an attempt to play in the big leagues here.”

Janne Siren, Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s director, agreed. “This will be a transformative project for the City of Buffalo and our entire region,” Siren said. “It will change how we see ourselves and where we live, and it will change how visitors from near and far see us again. The ‘City of Light’ becomes again the ‘City of Light.’ ”

Tourism magnet

The illumination project is expected to bring activity to the waterfront during off times of the year, driving hotel and restaurant business for a nighttime attraction that could also lure visitors from Niagara Falls.

Ambiances Design Productions, which has drawn international acclaim for its public art display on a grain elevator in Quebec City, the only other project of this scale, would oversee the design and implementation in partnership with Foit Albert Associates and Ram-Tech Engineers.

The Quebec City project – first conceived as a one-year attraction for the city’s 400th anniversary in 2008 and now in its sixth year – has been credited by the Quebec City tourism office as a major driver of tourism and a catalyst for boosting the city’s international reputation.

The “Image Mill” and “Aurora Borealis” productions drew an estimated 200,000 viewers in 2011, nearly 60 percent from out of town, with 80 percent staying overnight in hotels, according to a survey by the tourism office.

Local preservationist Tim Tielman saw the illuminated shows in 2008 and returned the next year with Howard Zemsky, the governor’s point man in Buffalo, and Rick Smith, who owns the collection of grain elevators at Ohio and Ganson streets dubbed “Silo City.”

“It was jaw-dropping. It told a story informed by history. There was a narrative and not just meaningless technical virtuosity,” said Tielman, who leads the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture.

He’s convinced it would be the tourism draw that has so far eluded the area. “People have talked for years about getting some of the people who go to Niagara Falls. Well, this is the type of thing, because of the spectacle of it, and because the Buffalo grain elevators are so otherworldly, that will get people down here,” Tielman said.

Customized for Buffalo

The Buffalo presentation would be different from the one in Quebec City, said Martin Gagnon, creative director of Ambiances Design Productions.

“The story would be customized to Buffalo’s experience. I want it to be one where people can find something for themselves, and for all ages, and dream and be surprised,” Gagnon said. “We don’t want to just illuminate without a purpose. You won’t see color changes every few seconds. There will be a story that the illumination is based on.”

Gagnon praised Buffalo for not overlooking the grain elevators’ potential. “Sometimes these structures become white elephants, so it’s great that someone decided to give them a second chance in the visual environment of the city.”

Buffalo, where Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator in 1842, had the nation’s largest storage capacity for grain by the first half of the 20th century, when the city was known as the “City of Grain Elevators.”

The colossal structures also had an impact as industrial art on European thought about modernism and architecture. The late Reyner Banham, the noted architectural theorist at the University at Buffalo, famously compared their faded grandeur to the Egyptian pyramids – although many have also seen them as eyesores. But today, only three remain in operation, and demolition and fire have seen several go by the wayside in recent years.

‘A lost landscape’

Lynda Schneekloth, who edited “Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo Grain Elevators,” once doubted she’d see their revival.

“When I started working on the Buffalo River in the late-1980s with the-then ‘Friends of the Buffalo River,’ it was a lost landscape. The winding and filthy river was dead, the factories and artifacts abandoned,” Schneekloth said.

Now, she noted, there are sustained efforts to clean up the river, new parks have gone in and a new rowing club is operating. Silo City has also become an occasional destination, and there is now a plan to light the grain elevators and bring the once-forgotten relics headlong into Buffalo’s future.

The City of Buffalo, which owns the Ohio and Michigan street bridges and the Concrete Central and Cargill Superior elevators, is on board with the project. So is the state Department of Transportation, which operates the Skyway. The New York Power Authority, which owns the Connecting Terminal and recently spent $2 million for stabilization and remediation, is also supportive.

Most of the private owners have also signed on. General Mills is expected to participate, although Archer Daniels Midland, which owns the Great Northern and Standard elevators, has yet to show interest, a source said.

Cost may top $20 million

The costs, planners say, are not nearly definitive enough, and will be refined as the process unfolds, but preliminary estimates for all four phases of the project are upward of $20 million. Annual operational costs would range between $700,000 and $1 million, which planners say could be covered by maintenance fees paid by eventual Canalside tenants and through sponsorships.

There will also be hefty utility costs associated with a project of this magnitude, which could also attract sponsors.

The illumination project could also unleash the potential of Silo City, a collection of three elevators owned by Smith of RiverWright, which has been opened to the public over the past year for arts extravaganzas.

The master plan envisions a boardwalk, lighting and outdoor theaters where visitors can watch projections off the Standard and Marine “A” elevators.

Smith said the waterfront agency would have to help financially to meet those objectives, but he’s excited by the scale of the project and what it could mean for Silo City and the “cool young people” he said are drawn to it. “[The plan] celebrates where we come from, and it could be a harbinger of where we can go as long as we use some creativity,” Smith said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com