Tear Down the Convention Center and Don’t Replace It

By Nicholas Miller

You may have heard, Buffalo lost a bid to host the annual conference of the National Association of Sports Commissions due to the dated condition of the current convention center and the not-so-vibrant condition of Main Street.   You can almost hear it now, can’t you?  Soon there will be cries from every direction that Buffalo ought to replace its convention center with a bigger and better model.  To not do so would be leaving money on the table, right?  How is Buffalo going to compete for all the lucrative convention business that seems to be revitalizing just about every other city?

Well, first off, conventions aren’t as lucrative as many people think.  This interesting Brookings Institute Report offers a glimpse at the harsh realities of convention center economics.  The report is several years old, but its points are still salient.  Convention business is fierce.  While many cities have spent enormous sums on massive enlargements of their convention centers, convention attendance hasn’t kept pace and the metrics of attendee spending are unclear.

Further, being a smaller city, Buffalo would be hard-pressed to come up with the funds to build a competitive convention center.  For instance, Pittsburgh, with a metropolitan population just twice as large as Buffalo, has a new convention center more than 14 times as large as Buffalo’s.

“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,” she wrote. “There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.”

- Beth Hecquet, National Association of Sports Commissions director of meetings and events

If Buffalo wants to compete in this market, it needs to think smarter.  It needs to do something far outside the box.  My suggestion would be to tear down the convention center and don’t replace it.  For starters, it’s almost laughably small; roughly the size of a typical Walmart.  It’s not a unique space and there’s no need to overreact and build some expensive, glittering architectural achievement to replace it. 

CCsouth.bmpBuffalo 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. 

At one point, I walked up Elmwood from downtown past countless interesting restaurants and businesses (not to mention six nearby hotels) and sat alone in the amazing interior of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum with the knowledge that just a mile south, convention sessions were being conducted in the small, windowless rooms within Buffalo’s concrete bunker of convention center.

Karpeles is just one of countless spaces that could be used for exhibition or meeting space.  Imagine what a unique experience it would be to hold a convention in the Connecticut Street Armory or one of Buffalo’s grand hotel ballrooms or the Central Terminal or Shea’s or the Richardson Complex or any number of Buffalo’s amazing churches.  The visitor’s bureau could refocus all the money and effort it spends on maintaining the outdated convention center to coordinating shuttles between these various facilities, becoming a central booking agency for all of these private spaces, and offering grant assistance to the caretakers of participating facilities.  That’s an approach that would offer a truly unique convention experience, one where people really saw and experienced the city.  It would also set Buffalo apart from all the cities that follow the traditional route of building expensive, banal convention pods. 

I say, rather than competing simply on the basis of convention facilities and downtown vitality, let’s allow Buffalo to compete as a unique city with countless interesting gathering spaces and many lively, unique neighborhoods.  Don’t fall prey to the faulty economics of big, shiny, single-use convention pods.

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Aerials from Bing Maps

Nicholas Miller graduated from the Ohio State University with a B.A. in Urban Geography and Economics in 2010.  He currently lives in Detroit with his partner where he works in the GIS field.

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