Sabres' project wins critical approvals

February 20, 2013 Updated Feb 20, 2013 at 8:25 AM EDT

By James Fink, Buffalo Business First

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Sabres' project wins critical approvals

February 20, 2013 Updated Feb 20, 2013 at 8:25 AM EDT

With the last of a long series of approvals in hand, the Buffalo Sabres organization can now focus on constructing the $172 million HarborCenter project, which is designed to serve as a key downtown Buffalo development magnet.

In a whirlwind series of meetings that began early Tuesday morning and lasted well into the afternoon, the HarborCenter project received critical tax breaks and incentives from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, a formal approval from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and, a series of right-of-way approvals and agreement to sell the nearly two-acre Webster Block property by the Buffalo Common Council. HARBORCenter Development LLC, a Sabres affiliate, agreed to pay $2.2 million for the Webster Block, a parcel that sits just across from First Niagara Center.

"I think this is a win for the city," said the Rev. Darius Pridgen, Ellicott District councilman.

The Buffalo Common Council unanimously voted for the right-of-way and land sale deal. The two earlier votes by the county IDA and ECHDC were also unanimous.

"This type of investment don't come along very often," Pridgen said.

At $172 million, HarborCenter is the largest private sector-financed investment in Buffalo's history. Team owner Terry Pegula is fronting the entire development costs.

"The Sabres are bringing density into downtown," said David Rivera, Niagara District councilman.

HarborCenter will be anchored by a pair of hockey rinks, the largest with an 1,800-seat capacity, that are designed to host youth, amateur and collegiate hockey teams, tournaments and events. Figure skating as well as public skating sessions will be part of the mix.

The venue will also be anchored by a 200-room full service hotel, which according to documents filed with the county IDA indicate it may be affiliated with the Marriott chain.

A sports-themed restaurant, some limited retail and five levels of parking - roughly 843 spots - are part of the mix.

Cliff Benson, Sabres' chief development officer and HarborCenter pointman, said the parking is designed not only to handle the project's needs but also those of First Niagara Center, Canalside, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and downtown Buffalo.

HarborCenter is one of several big ticket, high-profile development projects underway in downtown Buffalo including the $130 million Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, the $30 million One Canalside Building, the $46 million Catholic Health headquarters project and $40 million conversion of the Tishman Building.

While HarborCenter will be receiving $28 million in tax breaks during the next 10 years, it will generate more than $54 million in new taxes during that same period. Additionally, it will create 350 full and part time jobs and $260 million in new, direct revenues and another $400 million in indirect revenues.

HarborCenter is projected to attract 500,000 people annually.

Benson said he hopes to land major hockey tournaments there twice a month during the peak October to April period.

Construction is expected to start by early March. The rinks, restaurant and retail portions should be ready by September 2014 while the hotel is pegged to welcome its first guest by May 2015.

"In a lot of ways, this is a ground breaking project for Buffalo and, in reality, the entire region," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

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