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Koelmel named president of Sabres HarborCenter

Less than three months after losing his high-profile job as CEO of First Niagara Financial Group, John R. Koelmel has re-emerged in a new leadership role where he could wield his influence in shaping Buffalo’s redevelopment.

Koelmel was named Thursday as the new president of the Sabres’ HarborCenter project in downtown Buffalo. The longtime banking executive will oversee the operations of the hockey and entertainment complex being developed by Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula on the Webster Block in front of First Niagara Center.

The $170 million project will include a full-service branded hotel with 200 rooms, an upscale two-story hockey-themed restaurant, two full-size ice rinks, street-level retail space and a five-level parking ramp.

With its direct link to the Sabres arena across Perry Street, it will become the only three-rink complex in the National Hockey League. And it’s seen as a core part of the Canalside redevelopment that is transforming downtown Buffalo with four major construction projects at the same time.

“HarborCenter is a world-class game-changer and incredible development for this community. We’re beginning to see a one-of-a-kind facility that will position Buffalo as a real destination for both hockey and entertainment,” Koelmel said during a news conference Thursday to announce his hiring. “To be asked to play a lead role in fulfilling that vision, helping to make it a reality, is a tremendous honor, and I’m appropriately humbled and grateful.”

Koelmel will oversee day-to-day operations of the entire facility, including the hotel, restaurant, ice rinks and parking ramp. Officials hope to have Canisius College, a Division I hockey team, playing at the facility, and to host weekend tournaments and activities that will draw hundreds of thousands of people to the site each year.

“That’s a big business that has to be run, and fundamentally that’s what John’s job is going to be,” said Cliff Benson, the Sabres’ chief development officer and the Pegulas’ point man for their work in the community.

But the new role is much more than a glorified building manager, going beyond “core fundamental operating responsibilities” to deal with broader redevelopment, Koelmel said.

“Weighing in on what happens, how it happens, how it gets done, will be an important part of the role,” he said. “This is the linchpin for what’s happening in this particular portion of the city. It’s very important to Terry and Kim that what gets done here gets done very well, gets done in a first-class way.”

The surprise announcement marked a return to the spotlight for Koelmel after his abrupt departure from the helm of First Niagara in March amid clashes with the board of directors and investor frustration with the bank’s languishing stock performance. Both he and the bank have termed it a “mutual decision,” and he walked away with a $5 million severance package.

The Sabres were quick to tout the hiring of Koelmel as a big win, not just for them but for Western New York. A financial services veteran for over 30 years, Koelmel brings a mixture of business and leadership skills, together with community and political connections, to his new post, along with his stated commitment to the region.

“My heart’s with this city, with this geography. I’m in it to win it, for Buffalo and Western New York,” he said. The former banker readily admitted that the “core business” of running HarborCenter is vastly different than a bank. But he said the basics of business leadership are “readily transferrable.”

Additionally, he is chairman of both the New York Power Authority and Kaleida Health, and serves on the Regional Economic Development Council.

“There’s no doubt that John would have had opportunities to go many places with his background,” Benson said. “The fact that we can keep somebody here of John’s caliber, of his reputation in the community, and the opportunity for us to work with him, is very, very exciting. … It’s like getting the No. 1 draft pick.”

An Orchard Park native who graduated from College of the Holy Cross, Koelmel spent 26 years at international audit, tax and consulting firm KPMG LLP in Buffalo, rising to managing partner of upstate New York operations. He retired in 2000 and joined Financial Institutions in Warsaw as chief administrative officer but left after two years. He joined First Niagara as chief financial officer in 2004 and was named CEO in 2006 after the board ousted Paul Kolkmeyer.

Over seven years, he built the onetime Lockport Savings Bank into a super-regional behemoth with over $36 billion in assets and 430 branches in four states. During his tenure at the bank – now the second-largest in Buffalo and among the top 25 U.S.-based banks – he also oversaw its rise as a corporate citizen.

“Just making sure everything happens with this big hole in the ground is a full-time job,” Benson said, gesturing with this thumb to the windows overlooking the construction. “When those tower cranes go up, you’ll know that we really mean business, because they’re going to take up the whole skyline.”

The HarborCenter’s ice rinks, restaurant and retail stores are scheduled to open in September 2014, with the hotel set to open in the spring of 2015.