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Buffalo's Convention Center Blues

Buffalo's aging convention center is struggling. What should become of it now?

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Courtesy: Buffalo Niagara Convention Center

Even for a city used to more than its fair share of rejection, this had to sting. After a recent visit, the National Association of Sports Commissions decided Buffalo's convention center was too "dated" to host its 700 attendees. In a letter, Director of Meetings and Events Beth Hecquet wrote:

Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities. There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.

That's a big blow, particularly because the county invested $7 million to upgrade the center just two years ago. At the time, officials spoke of "rebranding" the space, installing a digital signboard outside, updating the kitchen, and ditching the "orange chairs and '70s walls."

But attracting conventions has become an increasingly challenging prospect. While cities are building and expanding their centers at an impressive clip, the number of events (and attendees) nationwide is dwindling.

Small, struggling locations without swank offerings are rarely going to be able to compete with New York, or Las Vegas, or even Pittsburgh or Baltimore. So what's a city like Buffalo to do? Invest in an overhaul? Tear the convention center down and start again?

It's a difficult question, and one without easy answers. In 2001, Buffalo's Working for Downtown released a roundtable called "A New Convention Center for Buffalo: Whether, When, How?" The question then, as now, was whether the city should try to greatly expand the current center. The city also considered adding a second story or moving the entire facility to the waterfront. 

In the end, the city decided "we're going to make do with this one for awhile," says Robert Shibley, the dean of the University of Buffalo's School of Architecture and Planning and one of the report's editors. And with the market as it is, that was likely the right choice.

"Investing [in convention centers] doesn’t make any sense – there’s simply no more business to get," says Heywood Sanders, a professor at University of Texas, San Antonio who studies convention centers.

Instead, he suggests that officials develop strategies that allow them to market the specific virtues of their city and center. For Buffalo, that might mean selling the city's Rust Belt charm and myriad quirky public spaces to audiences that want to avoid the sterility and anonymity of a traditional convention center space. As a writer at Buffalo blog Buffalo Rising proposes:

My suggestion would be to tear down the convention center and don't replace it ... Buffalo already has countless large, underutilized spaces that would provide a unique alternative to the typical convention center and provide more than enough space.  This thought came to me when I was in town for the National Trust Conference.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came for the conference, but in my conversations with attendees, I found that few were able to break away from the convention for more than brief glimpses of Buffalo's amazing neighborhoods. 

According to Ed Healy, vice president for marketing at Visit Buffalo Niagara, this is already happening. When the National Trust for Historic Preservation came to Buffalo, they hosted events at Shea's Performing Arts Center and other downtown spaces.*

Shea's Performing Arts Center, courtesy: Shea's

The Congress of New Urbanism and Society of Architectural Historians will both be coming to town in the next couple of years and taking advantage of the open spaces outside the convention center.*

Then, there's the Central Terminal, a rundown old station. The Terminal's central hallway can hold about 4,000 people. And though it's unheated and bathroomless (event hosts must rent port-o-potties), it's become the city's go-to space for ethnic celebrations, art shows and festivals.

"We're a re-use and development site," says Marty Biniasz, director of marketing and public relations for Terminal. "It's a unique space. Anybody looking to have an event that might stand out, not a sterile modern event, this might be a place."

The Central Terminal, courtesy dmealiffe

Ultimately, the right choice for Buffalo might well be attracting smaller shoe-string conventions while also selling its other charms. "We can attract people who want to use our city as a laboratory," Shibley says. "I know it's cliché, but that's one of our best-kept secrets."

*The original version of this post misidentified the Society for Architectural Historians. This post also originally misidentified one of the locations visited during the National Trust for Historic Preservation's awards.

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.