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John J. Rigas, chief executive of Adelphia Communications, said Gov. Pataki assured him Monday the state will help renegotiate a money-losing lease at the Marine Midland Arena -- needed to launch a major investment by his company in the Inner Harbor.

"He indicated to his key people he will have them give it his top priority," Rigas said. "I came away from the meeting very positive that at the state level, we'll get all the help we need."

Rigas, whose company announced a $160 million redevelopment plan last week that also would create more than 1,000 full-time jobs, declined to say what specifically the state will be asked to do to provide relief on the arena lease, but promised it won't be outrageous.

"We have to sit down around the table and work together," he said. "We're not asking for anything that's unreasonable or that would be an embarrassment to our side."

Pataki, who met with Rigas for a half-hour before attending a groundbreaking for the $27.1 million Inner Harbor project, declined to comment other than to say Albany would maintain its role in helping the local economy.

"Our administration has shown its commitment to Buffalo and Western New York and that commitment will continue," he said.

The Rigas family, which has an ownership agreement for the Buffalo Sabres, says the 30-year arena lease as now structured is a money-loser. They say that despite the hockey club's Stanley Cup run, the Sabres lost $15 million last season.

Officials have said previously the Rigases are seeking a deal similar to that struck by the Buffalo Bills at Ralph C. Wilson Stadium, one that gives the team most revenue while the public bears the cost of operating and paying for the facility.

Currently, the Sabres have substantial debt to repay on the 3-year-old Marine Midland Arena.

About 55 percent of the construction cost was funded privately through bank loans, with the remainder picked up by the state, county and city.

With a $25 million investment, the state has the largest public share in the $127 million arena, about 20 percent. That pales in comparison with the what other states have invested in similar facilities in recent years, Rigas said.

"If you look around the country, 70 to 85 percent of the funding in new arenas have come from the state level," he said.

"We don't know what we're going to be asking, but we have a difficult problem here. We're not saying we'd ever move the franchise, but we want to work through a terrific problem.

"The Sabres have been losing money for the past 10 years, part of that solution has to come through the arena."

The meeting between Pataki and Rigas in the Sabres boardroom also was attended by Mayor Masiello; Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence; and Charles A. Gargano, chairman of Empire State Development Corp., the state-run agency that was the vehicle for the arena funding.

"It was a very good first meeting," Masiello said. "It was not a negotiating session, it was a get to know one another better and get to know the magnitude of what is planned."

Adelphia, along with the Cordish Co. of Baltimore and Benderson Development Corp., are proposing a large-scale redevelopment plan that would transform the area near the Inner Harbor.

The plan includes constructing a high-rise building on the Webster Block across Perry Street from the arena, which would house an operations center for Adelphia Business Solutions as well as entertainment and retail space.

It also would redevelop Memorial Auditorium into a six-level retail, residential and office development. Plans also call for retail and restaurant redevelopment, along with apartments, under the Skyway.

"In essence, this is first time we really sat down with the governor to talk about the project, the jobs that would be created and future of the company," Rigas said. "He was enthusiastic, saw the opportunity and grasped it and gave it full support."

Following the private session, Rigas and the governor were among the dignitaries taking part in the groundbreaking of the public investment in the Inner Harbor.

"Forget the planning, the shovels are going into the ground," Pataki told the audience of elected officials and visitors gathered near the prow of the USS Little Rock in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. "You're going to see a great new Inner Harbor as part of a great, new city of Buffalo."

Pataki's comments were delivered only a few yards from where Gov. DeWitt Clinton inaugurated the Erie Canal 175 years ago. Officials hope the $27.1 million Inner Harbor project will kick-start a similar economic revival for the city.

"I believe Buffalo's future is inextricably tied to our past," Masiello said. "Water will be the catalyst for a new Buffalo, a new Western New York and new century.

"Buffalo's waterfront is ours. Other cities wish they had it. How we develop it into a place where people can work, live and play is important."

The new project, which is expected to be completed by the summer of 2001, will open a quarter-mile of waterfront to a series of new boat slips, a replication of the historic Commercial Slip, a public plaza and a new naval park.

The State Thruway Authority is contributing $11.7 million, with $14.8 million coming from the federal government and $300,000 from the city.

Rigas said the talks about the development may require "a little pain" but said the results will benefit the local economy.

"All of us are committed to bring these jobs to bring us into the next century and the high-technology world," Rigas said. "This development is very, very important to all of us.

"We'll get one chance and this is our chance. When I reflect on what other cities have done with their waterfronts, this is Buffalo's turn."

Other officials in attendance included Rep. Jack F. Quinn Jr., R-Hamburg; County Executive Gorski; and more than a dozen city, county and state lawmakers.

The Edward M. Cotter, a historic fireboat that will be among the craft displayed at the Inner Harbor, also sprayed columns of water in the background. The real work, however, was being done by a large dredge nearby.

The project will create four slips for displaying permanent or visiting boats, a large plaza suitable for concerts and other gatherings, and a replication of the Commercial Slip, the last link of the historic Erie Canal.

The project also will shift the warships displayed by the Naval and Military Park further downstream near the Marine Drive Apartments. A new museum will be built, and the veteran monuments in the area will be more displayed attractively.

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