Memorial Auditorium, arguably Buffalo's most beloved white elephant, has a November date with destiny.
After nearly six decades of use as a sports and entertainment venue, and a dozen years of stagnation while politicians and planners debated its future, the massive landmark will soon be demolished.
By this time next year, a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store, museum and public plaza are expected to be under construction on the five-acre site.
"We all have memories, we all have sentiments about this building, but life goes on. It's time to move on," said Jordan A. Levy, chairman of Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., who led a final tour of the venerable arena Tuesday morning.
Dark, chilly, with walls torn open from asbestos removal and with open spaces at its rooflines, the Aud hasn't totally lost its identity.
The arena's scoreboard still hangs from the rafters. Concession stand menus are frozen in time from the days when the Canadian exchange rate was 35 percent in favor of the greenback.
The Aud hosted its last hockey game April 14, 1996, when the Buffalo Sabres beat the Hartford Whalers, 4-1. The team has played in nearby HSBC Arena since the start of its 1996-97 season.
The last concert in the Aud was Sept. 11, 1996, with R&B ensemble Bones Thugs-n-Harmony as the final act in an entertainment history that included Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, the Ice Capades and the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Levy, who heads the agency overseeing redevelopment of the inner harbor site, has more than his share of personal memories of the Aud, having worked at the arena from 1970 to 1976.
"I was here for some amazing hockey and basketball games, and fantastic concerts. I'll never forget the time I spent in this building," said Levy, whose jobs included patching up the ice between periods of Sabres games and operating the escalators on concert nights.
Levy was joined by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo; Mayor Byron W. Brown; and Erie County Executive Chris Collins in a final walk through the 69-year-old building, and all of them shared personal memories.
Collins recalled seeing his first hockey game in the Aud in 1976. "I had moved here from Alabama and didn't even know what hockey was. I kept asking, 'What are they doing? What's a blue line?' " Collins said, noting that he is now so hooked on hockey that he purchased 26 full season ticket packages to Sabres games for use by his family and his businesses.
For Brown, memories center on the Aud's hardwood floor and Buffalo Braves basketball. The mayor's first trip to the Aud was to see the Braves as a Buffalo State College freshman, when he dreamed of playing college basketball and going on to the National Basketball Association.
"Some upperclassmen brought some of us to the game, and we sat in the nosebleed section. It was wonderful," Brown recalled.
Higgins, who grew up in South Buffalo, said Aud events were always part of his life. "I couldn't tell you how many times I've been in here, too many to count," he said.
But the outspoken advocate of waterfront redevelopment said it's time to look forward. "We have an unprecedented opportunity to remake Buffalo's waterfront and seize a once-in-a-lifetime economic-development opportunity," he said. "Let's hold onto the memories and step into the future."
A six-month-long environmental abatement, which will result in the removal of about 2,000 tons of asbestos and other hazardous materials from the Aud, is set to wrap up in the next two weeks. Demolition crews will arrive by mid-November.
Jon Williams, co-owner of Buffalo-based Ontario Specialty Contracting, said his firm is drafting demolition plans as it waits for the state to sign off on its $1.5 million contract. "Exactly when we start depends on getting the paperwork through Albany," he said, "but the expectation is we'll be on the site by the middle of next month."
The crews will dismantle the 450,000-square-foot auditorium piece by piece. Much of its steel and concrete structure will be recycled.
Developers are expected to unveil details of the Canal Side project, a $400 million effort that covers about 20 acres of the inner harbor, including the Aud parcel. The development will include more than a half-million square feet of retail, entertainment, hotel, office and residential space.
The first phase of construction will follow completion of a state environmental review, which is expected to take six to nine months.
City-sponsored live and online auctions of Aud "blue" seats and dasher boards are scheduled for Nov. 15-16. The "Farewell, Old Friend" event, which will be held in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, will also feature guest appearances by former Sabres and Braves players.