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Labatt poured about $1 million into new Buffalo HQ Brewer's office in Key Towers features a bar, which was used to celebrate its grand opening

The balloons were blue, like the ribbons and even the water in the fountain at Fountain Plaza.

But the mood at the official opening of Labatt USA's new headquarters in downtown Buffalo on Thursday was anything but.

More than 100 people -- distributors, salespeople, corporate marketing partners -- pushed toward the bar at Labatt's new office in the Key Tower to toast Buffalo's newest corporate citizen.

The limited beer selection didn't put a damper on the party.

"I do a lot of these press conferences," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, a non-drinker, "but this is the first time I've ever done one behind a bar."

He proclaimed it Labatt day in the city and pledged that, since he heard the company was coming, "I have purchased no other beer."

A unit of European brewer Inbev, Labatt moved its U.S. office from Connecticut to Buffalo as part of shake-up of its global marketing strategy.

Buffalo was chosen partly because it is close to Labatt's corporate headquarters in Toronto as well as the brewery in London, Ont. It is also one of the brewer's thirstiest markets in the U.S., the company says.

"We have a 1 [percent] share of the beer business in the U.S.," Labatt USA President Glen Walter said, but "we sell 100 million bottles of Blue and Blue Light in Western New York." That's not counting drafts pulled from kegs.

Border regions tend to be Labatt's best markets, and Buffalo is no exception with about 25 percent of the market, unusually high for an import.

The corporate presence here also puts Labatt near big retailers like Tops, Wegmans and Wilson Farms, concessionaire Delaware North and wholesalers like Try-It Distributing, which Walter credited for the brand's success here.

The office, overlooking the Chippewa strip from the ninth floor of Key Tower, houses about 25 employees in sales, marketing, finance and human resources. There are cubicles and computers in the 10,000-square-foot office, but the bar area, with its ceiling tiles made to look like a old-fashioned stamped tin ceiling, is also an important part of the business, Walter said. It will be used for corporate functions, meetings with distributors and training in quality dispensing.

With the Toronto headquarters a short drive away, why have a U.S. presence at all?

Walter explained that beer distribution in Canada is radically different -- brewers sell directly to customers there, while going through a three-tier system in the states. "Being a local U.S. team helps us understand that dynamic," he said.

Gene Vukelic, chairman of Try-It Distributing, said the brewer poured about $1 million into outfitting the headquarters, a figure Walter didn't dispute. "It was a pretty penny," he said.

Local officials at the ceremony were beaming, and not just because of the free product.

"It's so unusual when a company comes to Buffalo they choose us, rather than us chasing them," said state Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Buffalo.

The company's relocation plan surfaced in January as a surprise to local officials, who weren't asked for tax breaks or corporate development incentives.

"This is a vote of confidence in Western New York and Buffalo," said Daniel Gundersen, upstate director of the Empire State Development Corp.

John Livsey Jr., a marketing official with the Sabres, said the Labatt move extended a string of new headquarters downtown, including New Era Cap and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

The NHL team has marketing tie-ins with Labatt that co-brand the team and the brew.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff arrived and clinked bottles with Walter.

"I'm here for the free beer," he said with a grin.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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