Work on the $172.2 million HarborCenter project is on schedule and should pave the way for the opening of two ice rinks, a restaurant, retail space and a parking ramp by next autumn. A 205-room hotel is slated to open in 2015.
HarborCenter President John R. Koelmel sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to discuss the project’s long-term impact on the region. Here is a summary of some issues in an interview that is part of the In Focus series.
Brian Meyer: Give us an update on HarborCenter.
John R. Koelmel: The good news is it continues to progress very much on schedule. The building is literally going up as planned and presumed. … We’re in a really good place. Obviously, coming into winter (is) a key time in terms of the overall construction cycle, but we feel very good about where we are.
BM: Can weather have a major impact on the timetable?
JK: We’ve got a lot of hardy souls out there that show up every day that do the really tough work. Frankly, the biggest factor, talking to (Buffalo Sabres Chief Development Officer Cliff Benson) is the wind. If it gets a little bit too windy, I think it’s somewhere around 30 to 35 miles an hour, we can’t use the cranes. These guys are used to working in some tough conditions in terms of rain and snow and cold. You can compensate for that. The wind, you can’t. So we’re hoping the winds don’t blow too hard, too often throughout these winter months.
BM: This project has generated a lot of excitement and a lot of optimism in many circles. There have also been some skeptics. A reader after one of our recent HarborCenter articles posted a comment on our website saying, “Development downtown is great, but why do we need three ice rinks?” Talk about what this whole project aims to do.
JK: We’re committed to creating a very unique and sensational destination … a venue that people want to visit and see and experience, whether it’s on the ice, in the hotel, the restaurant. … Why we’re doing it is to develop hockey talent at all levels. Whether it be the association with the team, whether it be the nature of the facilities that we’re providing, all hockey roads over a period of time will pass through Buffalo. … The net of that will be tremendous impact. … You can already see visible signs of ancillary development that’s going up and around. Terry and Kim (Pegula) are making a huge investment, a huge incremental bet in Buffalo and Western New York, and (they) want to create a rising tide that will lift all boats.
BM: You mentioned the hotel that will have over 200 rooms. At what point are we going to be oversaturated with hotel rooms? Because, as you know, there are several hotel projects on line.
JK: We’ve been careful in terms of our thoughtful planning. Frankly, I’ve talked to some of the other developers around town. Everybody is very confident that we will feed off each other. Our effort is to not redistribute the existing pie. Our effort, as I like to say, is to fill up the portion of the glass that’s half-empty right now. We’re contributing to the overall growth and development. Our success will be contingent on the availability of other hotel rooms. Two hundred hotel rooms won’t provide all that we need week in and week out, whether that’s to accommodate our anticipated hotel travel, whether that’s tournament play, etc. So we’re looking to collaborate and cooperate. … We get inquiries already for events and conventions, etc., in 2015 and 2016. So the interest is strong, and we’re confident.
BM: You can’t talk about downtown waterfront development without talking about the Skyway. It’s a never-ending debate. Do you have a stand on whether the Skyway should be maintained or torn down?
JK: My personal view – one man’s opinion – is those dollars would be far better directed elsewhere. … I’d much rather see it invested, at least for the foreseeable future, in more productive ways. We can light it. We can do other things with it. It is not as intrusive as those who spend a lot of time talking about it (suggest). You can see the waterfront just fine from sitting here. People can move around. In fact, our objective is make this whole area more pedestrian-friendly, and there’s very little about the Skyway that gets in our way.