Stories by Colin Dabkowski
By Colin Dabkowski » Saturday, September 20, 2014
But now, after helping to prop up the struggling complex in its small but important way for almost a decade, Road Less Traveled is getting the boot.
The City of Buffalo, facing a staggering bill for its crumbling infrastructure across town, is taking advantage of the downtown development boom to ease itself out of the landlord business.
To that end, city officials decided last week to sell the building to the Amherst-based Benchmark Group, which is working with AMC Theatres to convert the complex into a modern, eight-screen venue to compete with suburban multiplexes. (AMC spokesman Ryan Noonan said that the company has “not signed a lease or made any commitment to open a theatre at that location,” but the company has signed a nonbinding letter of intent to occupy the building and contribute to renovations, according to Benchmark officials.)
This is monumentally good news for movie lovers. But it’s bad news for the theater company, whose reward for serving as an anchor in the city-owned complex for nearly a decade is an exceedingly polite version of “scram.” And it’s not a great omen for other cultural entities that will soon struggle to maintain a toehold in the neighborhoods they’ve helped to make attractive for investment.
It’s that same old sad story that’s playing out in cities across the United States as capital flows back into downtown: Money talks, and local culture takes a walk. But before we throw up our hands and cue the world’s tiniest violin, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Before last week’s announcement, word on the street was that the city would sell the Market Arcade either to Rocco Termini or Nick Sinatra, Buffalo developers of no small clout or vision who had each expressed a desire to keep the theater in the building. So the selection of an anonymous bid from Benchmark and news of AMC’s plans to convert the theater’s threadbare seats into plush recliners and bring its outdated projection equipment into the 21st century, came as a surprise.
Few were more surprised than Road Less Traveled Productions co-founder and artistic director Scott Behrend, who had openly campaigned for Sinatra’s redevelopment plan. Behrend, who has proven as adept at navigating the city’s labyrinthine political landscape as he is at pacing a Bruce Norris play, was characteristically diplomatic in his response to the decision.
“I really think that they made a good decision going with AMC, in terms of having a national movie chain, not unlike what they did out at Maple Ridge, which I think has been monumentally successful, and to invest those kind of dollars into that space, which it sorely needs,” he said. “I’m just very sad that it’s, of course, at our expense.”
To the credit of Buffalo officials, who made a good-faith effort to convince Benchmark to include the theater company as part of its plan, the way it handled the situation is a vast upgrade from past behavior.
Road Less Traveled will be allowed to remain in the space through the end of its 2014-15 season. And, according to Brendan Mehaffy, who directs the city’s strategic planning office, city officials are already working with Behrend, Shea’s CEO Anthony Conte and other neighborhood developers to help the theater plan its next steps.
“We understood that we had two proposals that were considering Road Less Traveled, but we also heard from many, many, many people that at the end of the day, what they wanted was an excellent movie theater,” Mehaffy said. “We’re not giving up on Road Less Traveled by preserving them in that space for their theater season and continuing to work with them on trying to find another space.”
This may seem like cool comfort from the city for a soon-to-be-homeless company, but it’s much better than its long-standing cultural policy of no comfort at all.
In this specific case, Buffalo was answering a genuine public desire for a first-class movie theater complex. And though Benchmark offered the highest price of the three bids for the Market Arcade, Mehaffy said that the loot was not the deciding factor.
Behrend, for his part, is optimistic that the city’s expressed desire to help the company find a new home is genuine.
“The city is 150 percent committed to trying to keep us in the Theater District, which is great. I have no idea at this point how viable that’s really going to be,” he said. “There are a couple of properties in the Theater District that have come online recently that we may be able to swing some deals with, and the city’s certainly going to help out.”
When big money moves in, there will always be cultural casualties. That’s just American capitalism, and no number of zoning variances or pleas for mixed-use or mixed-income neighborhoods are likely to change that. But a city has the power to minimize how much damage those market forces do to the organizations that attracted the market in the first place.
To do that, it needs to go beyond good-faith promises and sympathy. When it comes to Road Less Traveled, the jury is still out. Call this a test case for the inevitable displacements to come. Whether the city delivers for the company may predict what downtown Buffalo will look and feel like a decade hence.
Cultural venues ought to be more than mere placeholders or pretty pause buttons on the remote control of economic development.
In the past five years, Buffalo has come a long way in its regard for culture’s role in the region’s economic vitality. It still has a long way to go. And with more problems like Road Less Traveled’s displacement on the horizon, it can’t possibly evolve fast enough.
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