Buffalo Sabres officials are confident construction on the $123 million HARBORCenter project - located on the Webster Block in downtown Buffalo just across from First Niagara Center - will start by next spring and the complex should be ready to welcome its first tenants by September 2014.
The Sabres have shifted the focus of HARBORCenter from the planning stage to reality after Mayor Byron Brown officially named HARBORCEnter LLC - a Sabres affiliate - the preferred developer of the much-coveted Webster Block parcel.
The Webster Block decision was most closely watched and comes as part of a wave that has seen several high-profile projects announced in recent weeks and days including Chason Affinity's plan to transform the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital into a veterinary school and clinic.
The Sabres, who are proposing a mixed-use project anchored by a pair of hockey rinks and 200-room hotel, were selected over an offer made by developer Carl Paladino, who operates Ellicott Development Co. Paladino had proposed a $64 million, multi-use building anchored by a brand-name hotel, 42 market-rate apartments and nearly 100,000-square-feet of Class A office space.
"It was an intense competition with both entities putting their best foot forward," Brown said. "The Sabres provided an excellent, transformational proposal for downtown Buffalo."
The Buffalo Common Council, at its Sept. 4 meeting, is expected to consider the Sabres proposal to pay $2 million for the nearly two-acre site. The approval, one of several steps needed before construction can begin, would be considered a key milestone.
HARBORCenter, when fully developed by mid-2015, is expected to attract more than 500,000 people annually and add a new level of critical mass for the lower Main Street and Canalside District in downtown Buffalo. The rinks will be primarily used by youth, amateur, adult and recreational leagues and tournaments.
"It really completes the east side of Main Street," said Tom Dee, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. president.
Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, Visit Buffalo Niagara president and CEO, said the dual rink complex run by the Sabres and directly connected to First Niagara Center will be a huge plus for her organization as it looks to book more hockey tournaments.
Hockey and swimming are the top two draws for Visit Buffalo Niagara when it goes after amateur sports bookings.
"It will take us to that next level," Gallagher-Cohen said. "It puts Buffalo in the position of being a premier hockey destination in the Northeast."
From Gallagher-Cohen's perspective, HARBORCenter can't get developed quick enough.
"It, being right next to the (First Niagara) center and Canalside makes downtown Buffalo a real destination," she said.
Brown said there were several factors that came into play when he, his staff and an ad hoc community advisory committee reviewed the two proposals.
The mayor pointed to its role as a tourism destination, but also pledges by the Sabres to hire local workers, including those from the minority communities, and pay living-wage rates.
And, being directly connected to the Sabres had its own cachet, Brown said.
"Yes, there was a 'wow' factor, no question about that," Brown said.
Ted Black, Sabres' president, said the team and its owner, Terry Pegula, were motivated to develop a "Sabre campus" in downtown Buffalo and establish a legacy, too.
"This will be Buffalo's new front door," Black said. "We will do right by the city. We will do right by our fans."
HARBORCenter is the latest - but the largest and most visible - of the developments the Sabres have undertaken since Pegula bought the team in Feburary 2011. Last summer, they invested nearly $10 million rebuilding and upgrading the locker rooms and behind-the-scenes areas inside First Niagara Center.
Earlier this summer, Pegula said he was developing "Alumni Plaza" just outside the arena that will pay homage to the more than 400 players who have suited up for the Sabres. The plaza will include a statue honoring the team's famed French Connection line - Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and the late Rick Martin.
HARBORCenter's development team is also working with Pegula's alma mater, Penn State, on a new rink being constructed for the university's Division I hockey program.
"The Sabres are building on their strategic investment, which is already there (First Niagara Center)," said Andrew Rudnick, Buffalo Niagara Partnership president and CEO. Rudnick was one of nine members on Brown's advisory committee.
"In the context of Canalside, this makes so much more sense," Rudnick said. "The Sabres clearly have a vested interest in what happens on the Webster Block and downtown Buffalo."