By Patrick Kaler
Much has been said and written of late about the future of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center – and with good reason. At more than 35 years old, our convention center is among the oldest in the United States. It’s also among the smallest, ranking 78th of 88 centers nationwide.
Despite these shortcomings, the center continues to serve as an economic engine for downtown and the region, hosting events 250 days a year and generating more than 31,000 hotel room nights. This year alone, in addition to annual events like the Auto Show and Home Show, the center will host the Congress for the New Urbanism, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the New York State Board of Law Examiners and the American Association of Airport Executives.
Bringing these groups to Buffalo – and the economic activity they generate – would be impossible were it not for the convention center. The ongoing investment in the center by Erie County is of vital importance if Buffalo expects to continue to fill hotel rooms in the downtown core and benefit from the ancillary expenditures convention delegates make while in town – on dining, shopping, parking, car rentals and other discretionary purchases. More than $27 million in direct and indirect spending is generated by the convention center in a typical year.
The center may be undersized and showing its age, but it punches well above its weight class. Strategic investments in technology, a new kitchen, carpeting and décor in recent years have enhanced the center’s appeal to small to mid-sized groups that value service over size. The center and its staff consistently earn high marks from meeting planners who recognize the staff’s commitment to excellence and attention to even the smallest details.
That said, it’s well past time to appraise the center’s long-term viability as a host of conventions and special events. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has convened a committee devoted to this task. In trying to get its arms around the costs associated with overhauling or replacing the existing center, the task force will consider a number of variables that contribute to the success of any meeting facility: among others, proximity to full-service hotels; column-free floor space; parking; loading docks; and access to dining and entertainment options.
While several sites have already been touted as potential venues for a new convention center, it’s important to remember the community will live with this decision for years should we move forward. A methodical planning process, such as the county executive has proposed, is the only course that will yield a decision that makes sense for the community, the meeting planners, event coordinators and convention delegates who are our customers.
Patrick Kaler is president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara.