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Grain elevator could become brewery, entertainment, recreation complex

A grain elevator on the Buffalo River will be transformed into a brewery entertainment and recreation complex, perhaps as soon as next spring.

Developers plan to spend $15 million to convert the inactive 8-acre Wheeler-GLF grain elevator site at 333 Ganson St., located several hundred feet from the General Mills entrance by the Michigan Street Bridge, into a waterfront attraction with bars, restaurants, a brewery, an entertainment venue and ice rinks. The site is now used to store heavy equipment.

The area is across the channel from the new RiverFest Park and Ohio Street, which links the inner and outer harbors, and is being converted into an attractive $11.3 million parkway beginning this fall, where a new Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association center is breaking ground. Down the street is the emerging cluster of grain elevators known as Silo City.

The developers say the early phases of the project – to be called Buffalo RiverWorks – are expected to open by Memorial Day, with the goal of making the site fully functional one year from now.

Among the planned attractions are:

• Silos that have bars, restaurants and a brewery, with an outside circular staircase leading to a rooftop bar 90 feet in the air.

• Year-round concerts, athletic competitions and other events held in two joined warehouses with an added atrium, which will be able to hold 5,000 people.

• Seasonal ice rinks for adult amateur hockey and curling that also will serve as the home of the 2014 Labatt Blue Buffalo Pond Hockey Tournament. Soccer and lacrosse in the summer are also possibilities.

• Recreational boating, with docks along a 720-foot concrete wharf.

• An artificially created sand beach.

• A brewery operated by Earl Ketry, one of the developers who also owns Pearl Street Grill & Brewery.

Under consideration for a future phase is a $25 million, 100-room hotel that would incorporate new construction with an L-shaped feed mill, which people could sleep in.

“We’re building a facility that is not just a Western New York hangout, but a regionwide attraction that will bring outside dollars and be a real wealth generator for the region,” said Doug Swift, one of the developers.

“The Buffalo River zone between Michigan Street and the Ohio Street Bridge is an untapped resource, and I think this will be a catalyst that will generate interest beyond our site’s boundaries,” he said. “That whole area is going to change in the next 10 years.”

Swift has been a partner in several projects including Larkin at Exchange and the Genesee Gateway.

Jon Williams, who heads Ontario Specialty Contracting, which owns the site and will maintain its corporate office there, is the third member of the development group operating as Buffalo RiverWorks LLC and Ganson Entertainment LLC.

The project continues the momentum led by the Canalside development on the inner harbor, which has seen hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment; the outer harbor, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s September announcement of a new state park added to a long list of completed projects in recent years; and the ongoing cleanup of the Buffalo River, which Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper has steered with $75 million in federal funds.

Sam Hoyt, an Erie Canal Development Corp. board member, said the public investments in infrastructure are now setting the stage for private investment.

“It’s confirmation that Buffalo is hot. We invested $50 million at Canalside and the Central Wharf, and we’ve seen in excess of upwards to a quarter billion dollars in private investment subsequent to that,” Hoyt said. “The synergy Gov. Cuomo has been talking about is very real.”

The site’s industrial past will be given new life while retaining its earthbound look.

Six connected silos, arranged in three groups of two, are slated to be used, with restaurants on the lower and second floors, a brewery and underground storage for cooling beverages.

This would mark the first local attempt to come up with new uses for silos, which has been done successfully in isolated examples around the globe.

A glass atrium will connect two warehouses, located close to the water, providing 45,000 square feet for entertainment and recreational events.

“It will be very bright and very airy, with high ceilings and multiple-level decks and a patio that will surround the building on three sides. There will be views of downtown, the river and the other grain silos,” Swift said.

Concrete structures he called part of “the ruins” – the remnants of a controversial silo demolition in 2011 – are planned as a beer garden, with an artificial sand beach.

There will be parking for 500 cars, with expected use of First Niagara Center parking lots a few blocks away. A $10,000 road and pedestrian study of Ganson Street also is planned.

A Labatt spokeswoman said the pond hockey tournament is switching to refrigerated ice on land because Buffalo weather simply hasn’t been cold enough in recent years. The two sheets of ice will allow for six pond hockey-sized ice rinks to be played on simultaneously.

“Our goal was to keep the tournament outdoors and near the water in order to provide that gritty, authentic hockey experience we know our players want and appreciate,” Labatt’s Lisa Texido said.

Swift said there is a big need for adult amateur hockey, and while curling might seem to be a curious choice, it is a growing sport nationally.

“The closest place to do curling is in Niagara Falls, Canada, and there are a lot of people who go up there from Buffalo,” he said.

Some preservationists said they were excited to see the grain elevator district coming into its own. Cultural events the past two summers, with large public turnouts, have been held in Silo City, at Ganson and Child streets, and a $5 million project was approved by the waterfront agency in May to illuminate the Connecting Terminal on the outer harbor, the Michigan and Ohio Street bridges, two areas of General Mills and the underside of the Skyway in 2014.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Lynda Schneekloth, a former University at Buffalo professor who edited “Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis: Buffalo Grain Elevators,” which Swift cited as an influence on the project. “We are starting to see the rejuvenation of the Buffalo River as a cultural corridor for the new economy,” Schneekloth said.

Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, also is excited about adapting the silos for new uses. “As long as the integrity of the elevator is respected, it’s a phenomenal win for everybody,” he said.