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ADELPHIA DEAL EASES PAIN FOR CITY, SABRES

Seldom has a handshake eased so much pain.

After eight months of thrust-and-parry, Adelphia and the state/county/city finally nailed down a deal on a $125 million downtown office complex.

It's the best thing to hit town since the chicken wing.

It brings to Buffalo the national operations center of a high-tech corporation. Given all the companies that have gone through the "Out" door here, it's a huge relief to see one come through the "In."

The operations center doesn't just bring 1,000 or more new jobs. It eases the financial bloodletting for the Sabres.

The Rigas family runs Adelphia and owns the Sabres. It expects to lose $19 million on the team this year. Had this deal fallen through, odds are a For Sale sign would go up outside the arena.

Tim Rigas was asked this week if the team's future here depended on this deal.

"I don't want to paint a picture of the team leaving, but certainly the financial picture would not be as bright," said Rigas, Adelphia's executive VP. "That could manifest itself in a lot of ways."

That's a polite way of saying "We're Outta Here." There's no way the Rigases would keep taking $19 million hits, with no end to the beating.

Now they won't have to.

Having a national operations center next to the arena funnels new dollars to the team. It lets the Rigases put the arm on the national advertisers and vendors Adelphia does business with -- to get them to buy luxury suites, arena signage and ad time on the family-affiliated TV and radio stations.

Rigas expects that will pump $14 million annually into the team. Nearly half of it is already lined up, just on the promise of the new building.

"Without the building there to symbolize the operations of Adelphia," said Rigas, "we wouldn't be able to get that done."

The $14 million new dollars washes away a lot of red. With the new deal, Rigas sees a day when the team doesn't lose money -- and stays strong on the ice.

"That's the goal, to break even (with the team and arena)," said Rigas. "It's the best thing, for us and the community, to be on sound financial footing in three to five years."

Rigas said Wednesday he expected the deal to wrap up next month. It wrapped up the next day. Rigas made a point to mention Wednesday that, because of delays, 150 jobs meant for Buffalo were detoured out-of-state. He said it might have been an extra 150 jobs here, on top of the 2,000 promised.

I suspect the news slapped everybody to their senses. George W. Bush can talk all he wants about uniting, not dividing, but around here there's a different operative slogan: It's the Economy, Stupid. Anybody who doesn't think we need jobs already lives in North Carolina.

The Rigases aren't universally loved. They squeeze every drop out of every rock. They found a legal crack and pried more arena naming-rights dollars out of HSBC Bank. Some of the old business guard thought the newcomers should have genuflected on their way into town.

But had the Rigases not ridden in from the Pennsylvania hills, there's a good chance this team would've left years ago. Had they not decided to build a regional headquarters here, we'd be watching our hockey at Holiday Twin Rinks. Small-market NHL teams are the penny stocks of the sporting world. They're not investments, they're open wounds. The only way they make sense is if they're propped up by side deals and sister projects. That's what this operations center deal does for the Sabres.

"We have a plan," said John Rigas, the elfin, snow-haired CEO, "that makes sense so the hockey team can exist in this environment. If it was just the family and the hockey team (alone), it could not exist here."

Some still don't trust it. Adelphia plays in a league with AT&T and AOL/Time Warner. Only the strong survive.

The Rigases said they won't go for the retire-to-Florida buyout or merger -- and leave us with a beautiful, new, vacant building on the waterfront. "It's the will and desire of the family and our stockholders," said Tim Rigas, "to keep our promises and obligations in Buffalo, to see it through."

Call it another promise kept.

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