The site of the former War Memorial Auditorium is now home to a 37,000-square-foot ice surface.

When skating opens at 5 p.m. Thursday on the site of the former Memorial Auditorium, you’ll be able to stand where center ice once was located.

It’s the same spot where legends skated, including Pat LaFontaine, Danny Gare, Alex Mogilny and the French Connection – Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin and Rene Robert.

You won’t get paid what they were – actually, you’ll have to pay $5, $3 for kids 6 to 12 – plus $3 to rent skates. But when the iced-over canals open next week, the emblem of the old Aud, which stood from 1940 to 2009, will be in the exact spot where surveyors determined center ice was.

“After we put down the center ice emblem for the Aud, I immediately called my dad and I told him, ‘Hey, Dad, you’ll never guess where I’m standing, I’m standing here at the center ice of the Aud, where you used to take me when I was a kid.’ I had to call him up and tell him,” said Dan Scirri, field superintendent for LiRo, the project’s construction manager.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘I can’t wait to get my hockey stick and get a picture right at center ice,’” said Thomas Dee, president of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency that has planned the site’s development.

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PHOTO GALLERY: A sneak peak at Canalside

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Something else is also being commemorated, of course: The long-awaited opening of a historically aligned canalway in the exact location of the original Erie Canal and Main & Hamburg Canal, on the west side of Main Street.

Launching the picturesque, 37,000-square-foot ice surface – it’ll hold water during warmer months – comes four years after a state agency changed course and sided with the public’s desire for accurately represented canals, emphasizing Buffalo’s history as the terminus of the Erie Canal.

“It really is a dream come true,” Dee said. “Dec. 18 is something that we are so looking forward to, and I think the citizens of Western New York will be kind of blown away by how awesome it is.”

Tim Tielman, a preservationist who helped lead the charge for a more history-based project, also is buoyed by the canal’s completion.

“The historic canal alignment and the historic streets are there, and that’s a big head start to making the whole site successful. I’m not aware of another city in the United States that has done this type of waterway restoration,” he said.

“I hope everyone who was involved in making it happen gets a great deal of satisfaction looking at it, whether ice skating or contemplating the scene on a warm summer day.”

The project had its share of delays, most notably the six years between 2004 and 2010 when it was kept in limbo while Bass Pro Shops couldn’t make up its mind whether to build a heavily subsidized super-store on the site. Pressure for a decision from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, finally led the company to back out in June 2010.

Another delay resulted from the June 2013 firing of the first project manager, DiPizio Construction, which spawned a lawsuit that continues to wind its way through the courts.

But now the time has arrived for the former Aud site to take its place as one of Buffalo’s most anticipated and image-altering attractions. The opening comes less than two months since nearby HarborCenter opened its doors, and less than a year since the former General William J. Donovan State Office Building was reborn as a hotel and the home of a law firm.

The historically accurate Lloyd Street, Commercial Street and Lake Street bridges, which will allow people to walk over the canals or skate under them, are among the site’s features. The bridges – with Lloyd Street the biggest, at about 50 by 100 feet – are named for long-ago streets the project also has resurrected. Keeping with the historic look are exposed aggregate sidewalk, light and dark gray granite and red sandstone native to the region.

Some things are temporary, such as the lights, since lighting is expected to come off buildings planned in the future. There will be portable bathrooms, a heating tent and a handful of food and artisan stalls. Food trucks also are expected.

Canadians should appreciate the two curling zones on the ice. There also will be a dozen “ice bikes” available for rental, with Thursday events also including pond hockey with Hasek’s Heroes, figure skating with Skate Great, and broom ball. Free community skating will be offered from 6:15 to 9 p.m.

With the focus on ice, site officials will be giving special attention to the refrigeration system, housed in a rebuilt sub-basement that was in Memorial Auditorium. New tanks, chillers and filtration system are among the machinery that helped earlier this week to make sheets of ice using a five-inch concrete slab with 5/8-inch piping running through it. The slab was brought to 18 degrees, and then sprayed with a 1/16 inch layer of water repeatedly over the course of a week to achieve a thickness of 1½ inches.

The refrigeration system can generally be sustained into temperatures going into the 50s, but not if the warmer weather is prolonged and there’s rain to boot.

“Everybody says Buffalo’s weather is so cold. It’s not. We had to have a refrigerated system so when we get warm spells, the ice doesn’t melt,” Dee said.

Beside the Memorial Auditorium emblem are logos for Canalside and for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York, the site’s main sponsor. A consultant advised the use of corporate sponsorships, and Dee said the short-term goal is to collect $300,000 for the winter, including dasher board ads, and $600,000 year round to offset operational expenses. It remains to be seen how the public feels about them.

“We’re trying to keep it subtle, and use Bryant Park in New York as a model, so it doesn’t jump out at you everywhere,” Dee said.

Officials already are looking to the next phase of development – the Explore & More Children’s Museum, which will take up 40,000 square feet of the 80,000-square-foot, four-story building planned just east of the Lloyd Street Bridge on the south side of the site. Retail, office space, residential and even another hotel – the Courtyard Marriott opened earlier this year, and another Marriott is opening across the street in 2015 – are all possibilities in the rest of the building, Dee said.

A three-story building, with 5,000 square feet on each floor, is planned on the other side of the bridge with restaurants on each floor, with a nearby 5,000-square-foot comfort station and information booth.

“Those plans are in schematic phase right now, and we’re ready to take that to the next step. So, six months from now, they should come out of the ground,” Dee said.

The northern end of the site, which occupies about two of the Aud site’s five acres, where the base of the Aud stood, is on the back burner – and likely to remain there until the other developments are done or well on their way.

Jordan Levy, a former waterfront agency chairman, is elated to see the canals opening. It was Levy who, in December 2010, months after Bass Pro pulled out, announced the agency was wrong not to have pursued the historically aligned canals that the public was clamoring for, and would immediately change direction.

“I’m excited to see the dream that the community had coming to fruition,” Levy said. “To me, Canalside was not an economic development engine, it was a psychological boost to this community, and the catalyst for the redevelopment of the city.

“People are saying Buffalo is a growth town again. Think about that. No one was saying it then.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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