The awesomeness that is HarborCenter
by Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
From downtown Buffalo, this is a game changer
The day is finally upon us.
HarborCenter, the largest private sector development in the city’s history, is opening its doors to the public, and the excitement about this project has been off the charts as thousands of visitors to Canalside and First Niagara Center over the past 20 months have watched this massive structure go up at breakneck speed.
Tim Hortons’ Café and bake shop has just opened for business at the corner of Main and Scott streets, but this is not your ordinary coffee store. Billed as a “destination” café, murals, artifacts and displays showcase the life of the hockey player from which a worldwide conglomerate grew, and that story comes right through Buffalo, New York. It will certainly be a place for locals and tourists alike to enjoy, to come and gawk, another attraction for the ever emerging Canalside neighborhood.
Also opening this weekend is the 750 space parking garage, which will be available for arena and all downtown events. Next week 716 Food and Sport, the eclectic sports bistro modeled after the hugely successful Real Sports restaurant in Toronto, will begin welcoming the public, and they have already rolled out their menu, centering on Buffalo themed dishes prepared with local ingredients and a huge selection of craft brews and specialty drinks.
But the main event? Canisius College hockey debuts with back to back games on Friday and Saturday upstairs in the HarborCenter rink, beginning a new and exciting era for NCAA Division 1 hockey here in Western New York.
By next summer, the final piece of the complex, a 200 room Marriott Hotel rising 20 stories, will welcome its first guests.
So how did this all happen? After all this is Buffalo, where silver bullet concepts go to die. Where clashes between preservationists and developers can often times become a blood sport. Where a multitude of viewpoints from all sectors of the community manage to rise to the surface, micromanaging the minutiae of every project to death. Where some have nothing better to do than nitpick at trivial details such as fenestration, the color of brick, and proximities to the sidewalk.
One has to go back to 2011, when the City of Buffalo, owners of this vacant land parcel referred to as the “Webster Block”, were under enormous pressure to cede the property to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, the umbrella state agency charged with the buildout of the Inner Harbor and Canalside. Fearing that the land would go into their hopper of other projects, which the ECHDC had typically moved forward at a glacial space, Mayor Byron Brown and his administration instead opted to issue their own “request for proposals” to develop the site, with the proviso that any developer fast track their vision to build the property.
Two substantial proposals came forward—one for HarborCenter and the second a mixed use project envisioned by Ellicott Development. On August 30, 2012 the Sabres were designated the developer. Just over four months later, on January 20, 2013, HarborCenter won all the approvals needed in a whirlwind day of meetings, presentations, and votes by the Buffalo Planning Board, the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, and the Buffalo Common Council.
At the time just a very few naysayers spoke out against the plan. One activist unveiled an alternative concept, advocating open air rooftop rinks and huts fronting Main Street which resembled a Caribbean fishing village. The plan gained zero traction, it was all systems go for HarborCenter, and ground was broken in mid February.
Former bank executive John Koelmel was named HarborCenter president in June of that year, and has shepherded the project from its initial construction to the development of all the amenities and elements that will comprise the complex. His explanation for the fast track buildout is a simple one. “It starts with the courage and conviction that Kim and Terry Pegula have, and that charge needs to be private sector led. So you have the consummate private sector leaders that are ready to commit with their passion and conviction to make Buffalo a better place and to create an environment to change. Since this project was advanced over three years ago we’ve had nothing but acceptance and collaboration from the public sector, the labor unions, our neighbors at Canalside, and the community at large and the support that we’ve consistently received,” Koelmel said. “The sense of anticipation has now turned into a sense of excitement.”
Koelmel is Buffalo born and bred, and his passion for the community bubbles across the table as he speaks about the resurgence that the city is now going through. “We’re making it happen...the Medical Campus, Larkinville, Delaware Avenue, the great news is everywhere you go there is evidence of the great things that are happening. We lost too many of the X’s and Y’s, the millenials, but now we are retaining them and many want to come back. That is the story here and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
The most challenging part of the construction of HarborCenter was “putting two sheets of ice six floors up in the air,” according to Koelmel. He admitted that installing all the elements of what is now a hockey arena, training center, hotel, retail shops and restaurants and parking structure in a very constricted space has been and continues to be difficult. “It has challenged everyone right to and including this very moment,” said Koelmel. “As we are moving in, our ability to execute at the level we expect of ourselves is incrementally challenged beyond what it would normally be because there is just a lot in a very small space. A lot that presents architectural and engineering challenges that haven’t been attempted anywhere before.”
Koelmel is charged with making sure that HarborCenter will be a financially viable project, and he is convinced that that will come to fruition. “Part of that $200-million investment is tangible and part of it is intangible. The good news for all of us is that the Pegulas give significant weight to the intangible part of that investment. That said, it’s our job to make a meaningful financial return. We’re confident, based on what has been booked, and the restaurant and hotel that have yet to open, that this will be successful. But those returns will come within a longer time frame than most who would make that sort of investment would come to expect.”
Interest is white hot in the rental of space at HarborCenter’s Mercantile Exchange retail area, and Koelmel hopes that demand will also eventually fill out mostly vacant spaces on the ground floor of the First Niagara Center abutting Main Street. HarborCenter officials are working closely with state officials and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation for the further evolution of the Canalside neighborhood. “We want to influence the pace and the progress that they are making. We have worked hand in hand with them to insure that there is as short a gap as possible between the opening of our facility and the amenities they are going to make available.”
Koelmel strongly believes that the Canalside footprint makes for a perfect site for village styled events to compliment major tournaments at the arena and at HarborCenter. “Our attempt will be to create a festival type environment within an international village type concept, so that patrons can enjoy activities inside and outside the facility.”
As for future coming attractions, Koelmel stated, “Every swatch of green grass down here is a development site. Developers and investors will be watching closely what we accomplish here. The request for proposals for the planned market on the north Aud block hasn’t been issued yet, I’ll defer to them (the ECHDC). My sense is they want to get it right before they put it out. We’re progressively doing the right things the right way, and I applaud their efforts to get it done in due course.”
It all gets started this weekend, but HarborCenter will be open 365 days a year. “On a slow day we’ll have hundreds, on a regular day we’ll have thousands and on a busy day we’ll have tens of thousands. That will be a continuum. For downtown Buffalo, this is a game changer.”
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