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Erie’s convention ship has come in

Courtesy Bayfront Convention Center

“Don’t give up the ship,” read Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag on the USS Niagara as his nine small ships defeated the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie.

Although Perry’s proclamation came nearly 200 years ago in the War of 1812, the city of Erie listened. His rebuilt brig Niagara is now moored along the city’s waterfront.

Nearby, shaped like a ship, Erie’s Bayfront Convention Center juts into Presque Isle Bay. In the early morning, seagulls congregate on its prow, waiting for the day to begin. Down below, people move with more purpose, carrying chairs, rolling tables, spiffing up for the day ahead.

Erie, a city of 104,000 in a county of 280,000, sits on the edge of Lake Erie in northwestern Pennsylvania. It is two hours by interstate from Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. US Airways, Continental and Delta/Northwest Airlines serve the airport, Erie International.

Changes begin in 2007

The Bayfront Convention Center opened in August 2007. It was joined a year later by the 200-room Sheraton Bayfront Hotel.

The two buildings herald the rebirth of Erie’s marina district, once an industrial waterfront. The project was named one of the 13 “most outstanding” construction projects of 2008 by the Associated General Contractors of America.

There is more development to come on the waterfront. An old asphalt-shingle factory that operated on the bay for more than 100 years was demolished this fall. And although no plans have been announced for the prime waterfront property that stands empty adjacent to the convention center, ideas for parks, shops and restaurants are brewing.

Sleek and low to the water that surrounds it on three sides, the Bayfront Convention Center has 56,000 square feet of space with free parking and an outdoor terrace memorable for sparkling water and sunsets.

Its 30,000-square-foot Great Hall can accommodate 160 booths or 4,000 people. It has two 16-by-16-foot truck entries and five loading docks.

An adjacent 13,500-square-foot ballroom can be divided into two sections or can expand the Great Hall to 43,000 square feet.

Fifteen smaller meeting rooms for groups of from 25 to 385 skirt the perimeter like staterooms. They open onto the long ship-deck lobby, separated from the water by 20-foot windows and benches that curve like gentle waves. The lobby is often used for receptions and dinners.

“Even in the winter,” said Carmine Camillo, director of marketing and sales. “When the bay freezes over and the moon hits the ice, it’s very beautiful here.”

Freezes over? Yes. Erie is located in what’s known as the “snow belt,” downwind of the Great Lakes. The average annual snowfall nears 90 inches.

“But when it snows, we plow,” Camillo said. “And if it snows again, we plow again. Snow doesn’t faze us.”

The convention center offers services that include a box office, nurses and emergency medical technicians and in-house catering.  There are also 500 free parking spaces and wired and wireless Internet access. Lighting and sound are programmable and webcasting is as easy as plugging into the wall.

A 65-foot-high glass sky bridge over the water leads to the Sheraton, which has a ballroom for 220 and two smaller meeting rooms for 60- and 40-person get-togethers.

“We work with the convention center,” said Jodie Streimer, director of sales and marketing. “We move back and forth for receptions and dinners.”

Carol McCullough Fitzgerald, executive director of the politically well-connected Pennsylvania Society, said her organization’s spring annual meeting drew 400, twice as many people as anticipated.

“I’ve worked with lots of venues, and this was fantastic,” she said. “Attention was paid to every detail, and the convention center staff worked seamlessly with the Sheraton staff. I love Erie. It was a wonderful experience.”

The Sheraton’s 60-seat restaurant is on the water; a private dining room seats 30. The hotel lobby features a Link@Sheraton gathering space with Internet access, a fireplace, sofas, books and a television.

President Barack Obama worked out in the well-equipped fitness center that overlooks the lake when he was a guest there, Streimer said.

So far, the Sheraton is the city’s only waterfront hotel. Most of Erie County’s other 3,800 hotel rooms are clustered near interstates 79 and 90, south and west of the city.

Towering views of the city
The waterfront also features the 187-foot Bicentennial Tower built in 1996, which offers great views of the city, the bay and the USS Niagara, often docked at the Maritime Museum, now its home.

The museum recounts the Battle of Erie and the city’s shipbuilding past. Receptions can be held on a patio built around slips for the tall ships that often visit.

The Victorian Princess, a three-level paddlewheeler, is docked nearby and available for dinner and party cruises for groups of up to 140.

A brisk walk or trolley ride up the hill into the city leads to the Erie Art Museum, a wonderful mix of old and new that’s part Greek temple and part shiny new glass.

The Art Museum mushroomed in October with the opening of contemporary new galleries and event space. It’s adjacent to the old museum where a hoary statue, “Eternal Vigilance,” stands guard. Topped with a green roof, the new museum is the city’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified building.

The old museum, housed in Erie’s 1839 Customs House, was renovated in late 2010 and is available for receptions for 100 people, said John Vanco, the executive director.

A multipurpose room in the new museum, equipped with a screen, a low stage and doors that open to a courtyard, can seat 156 people.

Nearby, Molly Brannigan’s Irish Pub has two areas that can accommodate a private event for up to 40 and two semiprivate alcoves that hold 14. It’s located in an old hardware store with a magnificent painted oval on the ceiling.

“That used to be a big hole,” said restaurant manager Michael Farsace. “When someone ordered buckets or tools, they tossed them down through it.”

Another restaurant, the Pufferbelly, is an old firehouse. Door handles are fashioned from fire hoses, and the inside is alive with artifacts such as a net to catch people who leaped from burning buildings and the shiny brass pole that firefighters used to glide from their second-floor bunks to their fire trucks.

Three facilities — a theater, an arena and a ballpark — operated by the Erie County Convention Center Authority are just up the street.

Opulence in 1931 theater
One of the few theaters commissioned by the Warner Brothers, the Warner Theatre opened as a movie house in 1931. It was built at a cost of $1.5 million with money the Warners made from their successful new “talking pictures.” It’s now home to the Erie Philharmonic, the Lake Erie Ballet and a Broadway series.

As opulent now as it was then, the theater envelops patrons in rusts and greens, gold and silver leaf, tapestries and 13 pieces of original art. It recently had a $3 million facelift.

A $16 million backstage remake that will include a two-bay loading dock, a wider stage, and all new lighting and equipment is getting under way.

The 2,250-seat theater and Grand Lobby are available for events, receptions and dinners for up to 500 people year round.

Also undergoing major renovation is the 30,000-square-foot Tullio Arena, home to Erie’s ice hockey team, the Otters. The $42 million update is scheduled for completion in 2012. The arena is an option for trade shows, with room for 200 exhibits, and for in-house catered dinners for as many as 2,000.

Adjacent to the arena, the Erie Sea Wolves’ 6,000-seat baseball stadium guarantees a fun after-hours outing in the summertime.

Several other meeting venues are situated outside the center of town.

The Ambassador Conference Center is served by two hotels: a Hilton Garden Inn that opened a year ago and a recently renovated Marriott Courtyard. Combined, the hotels have 214 guest rooms.

The conference center is known for its two ballrooms: a 6,000-square-foot space lighted by Austrian crystal chandeliers and a smaller 200-person ballroom, named for Ernest Hemingway, with a clubby feel and an adjacent stone and wood lounge around a fireplace.

The  Manufacturer and Business Association Conference Center, a few minutes outside downtown, is a meticulous, professional site for meetings of up to 200 people.

“Eighty-five is the best size,” said Norm Zymm, director of sales and operations.

The center has 10,000 square feet of meeting space nicely configured for different needs. For example, there’s a technology-equipped tiered auditorium for 85, a computer lab with 16 stations, a boardroom for 20, an amphitheater for 55 and five breakout rooms.

The 2,000-square-foot Founders Room is suitable for a banquet for up to 200. A camera in the ceiling makes it easy to capture a speaker’s presentation.

Although the center has no guest rooms, hotels are five to 10 minutes away along Interstate 90.
The family-owned Bel-Aire Clarion Hotel and Conference Center has a 5,000-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into thirds; it is slated for renovation in January.

It also has two boardrooms, an indoor terrace lush with greenery and a courtyard that can be tented. The 131 guest rooms have wireless Internet access.

Erie also has attractions that will add spice to the meeting mix.

Family First Sports Park and Fun Center is a huge complex with minigolf, bumper cars, batting cages, basketball and team building by staff from Youngstown State University.

There’s also an indoor driving range and golf lessons from a pro.

Presque Isle State Park, the peninsula of land across the bay from the convention center, has beaches and trails (see sidebar, below).

An expansive wine country
A half-hour drive along Lake Erie puts you in the town of North East, with five wineries and grapevines as far as the eye can see.

Vineyards stretching 40 miles from there to Silver Creek in western New York, form the nation’s largest grape-growing region east of the Rockies, according to the Chatauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail.

Bob Mazza owns the South Shore Wine Company, Pennsylvania’s largest wine producer, which makes 100,000 to 125,000 gallons a year.

“We make principally whites like Pinot Grigio and Riesling due to the cool climate,” he said.
Five years ago, Mazza bought an old inn with a spectacular stone vault in the lower level. He now does wine tastings there for seven to 100 people.

Two years ago, he added an upstairs room for meetings or banquets for 100 and, last year, opened a cafe with a screened veranda that can seat 45.

Presque Isle Downs and Casino opened in 2007 with 2,000 slots and nightly horse races from May through September. In July, the casino added table games.

“This racino is not a place for meetings,” said Lisa Heidelberg, sales and travel manager. “It is a place for diversion after hours and perhaps a dinner meeting.”

The casino provides complimentary transportation for groups from the convention center and area hotels.

Its tiered trackside Club House Restaurant holds 300 and can accommodate private parties.
The casino’s other restaurant, an upscale steakhouse, has a semiprivate room for 20 to 25 and a small private room for 16.

Kids traveling with parents will find fun at the city’s children’s museum, small zoo and Splash Lagoon water park, open year round.

Waldemeer Amusement Park, the country’s 10th oldest, is open May to September. It has a water park, 75 attractions and a roller coaster chosen in 2008 as the “best new ride in the world” by Amusement Today.

“If you’re driving along the interstate and see signs for Erie, stop,” the Ambassador Conference Center’s Augie Shiava said. “You’ll be surprised.”