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It's showtime at HarborCenter

Not long ago, the 1.7-acre Webster Block just north of First Niagara Center was a parking lot and a pipe dream.

It was supposed to be home to the towering headquarters of Adelphia Communications, until the company imploded in 2001 and the Pennsylvania founder and a son went to prison. After that, little interest was shown in the prime downtown location.

That was until another Pennsylvania family – Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who now also own the Bills – entered the picture.

On Friday – two years, two months and two days since the Pegulas’ HarborCenter Development was designated as developer, and 18 months since breaking ground – years of dashed hopes for the site will come to an end with the grand opening of the mostly privately financed 19-story HarborCenter.

Buffalo’s newest destination – 650,000 square feet with a brick, glass and two-toned anodized aluminum exterior – is expected to become a force in amateur hockey, dining and tourism and boost the emerging waterfront, as well as the hotel industry when Buffalo Marriott HarborCenter opens in the summer of 2015.

The $172 million sports, dining and hospitality emporium, which includes a parking ramp of 750 spaces on the first five floors, is also a billboard for the many extraordinary changes occurring in Buffalo.

Two illuminated frosted glass panels – one three stories high at Washington and Scott streets, the other five stories high at Main and Scott – will signal Friday that HarborCenter is open for business.

“We can’t wait to give birth to the vision and the dream that Terry and Kim had several years ago to have such a dramatic and meaningful impact on the game of hockey and the City of Buffalo,” said John R. Koelmel, HarborCenter’s president. “There is no question it is a transformative game changer for Canalside and the waterfront.”

Two ice rinks with National Hockey League dimensions are expected to become a national magnet for advanced hockey players, coaches and teams. They’re located on the sixth and seventh floors above the parking ramp.

The rink on the south end seats 1,800. The other, on the northern end, seats 135. The Canisius College Griffins, Erie Community College Kats and the Buffalo Junior Sabres hockey teams will play their home games at HarborCenter. Hockey fans will get their first chance to watch the rinks in use when Canisius plays Ohio State on Friday and Saturday nights.

The complex will be the site of an array of national youth and amateur hockey tournaments.

Also in HarborCenter will be the Academy of Hockey, a hockey development program; Impact Sports Performance training facilities; and a 1,780-square-foot ice plant to maintain ice service for both rinks.

Visitors to Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop – which opens today – won’t see a cookie-cutter design. This coffee shop, decked out in retro Sabres blue and gold, circa 1964, is meant to be a signature location, celebrating its namesake, the Sabres and the team’s former home, Memorial Auditorium.

The seating won’t be much more than at other Tim Hortons. But the decor includes seats recalling those at the Aud and the walls brim with hockey history – all intended to make it a destination for hockey fans.

Opening one week later will be the sleek and modern (716) Food and Sports restaurant and bar, which hopes to be a sports bar unlike any other in the region. A large, illuminated sign announces its name – the telephone area code for most of Western New York – at the entrance at Washington and Scott.

Owned by HarborCenter, the 13,000-square-foot, two-level establishment has a colossal 38-foot video screen above one of three bars. The glass bar tops are illuminated and give the appearance of an ice rink.

There will be more than 360 seats, and more than 60 televisions showing sporting events.

More than 40 beer selections – half of them craft beers – will be served, along with food selections ranging from salads, hamburgers and pizza to pricey ribeye steaks.

“Buffalo doesn’t have this type of facility, and I’m confident people will be blown away when they walk in, and dazzled when they’re leaving by the experience they’ve had,” Koelmel said.

“We wanted to have some warmth, and be more like Buffalo and less like New York City or Toronto,” said Frank Cravotta, executive vice president of creative services for Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

The 205-room full-service Marriott International hotel, still nearly a year from completion, will be worth the wait, Koelmel said. Windows will offer wraparound views of the waterfront and city. The hotel will also provide 6,000 square feet of event space.

Koelmel said 20 Friday-to-Sunday hockey tournaments that the new facility has already booked will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Buffalo. Other hotels will help meet the demand for rooms.

When the hotel does open, it won’t have a 13th floor. Marriott does not allow one on its properties.

“Once the hotel is up, and completed, that hotel will be unlike anything in Buffalo. It’ll be off the charts,” Cravotta said.

HarborCenter will also have storefronts along Main Street expected to be leased in 2015.

The behemoth structure, which the Sabres have called “Hockey Heaven,” is also the latest project to come to fruition near Canalside. The Courtyard Marriott and Phillips Lytle law firm opened earlier this year. Next month, historically aligned canals are expected to be completed near the former Aud site, launching what officials anticipate will be a huge attraction.

Harbor Center has been hailed by officials at Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., the state agency overseeing the waterfront, and politicians. But it remains to be seen how it will fit into Canalside.

Some critics feel that the property is too large for the space, question whether another hockey facility is a good fit for the waterfront and express concerns about the architectural design and traffic.

“We complained the most about too much construction on too small a footprint. The jury is out as to how traffic will be affected by it,” said John McKendry, owner of Hi-Temp Fabrication, next to First Niagara Center.

Populous, a Kansas City-based architectural firm formerly known as HOK Sport, designed HarborCenter. The firm has designed hockey and basketball arenas, retro baseball parks such as Coca-Cola Field, and football stadiums, including the recent overhaul of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.

Wayne London, principal and senior project manager for the HarborCenter project, said the design was intended to meld a contemporary look with Buffalo’s historic architecture, represented by brick and details such as the use of arches. London said design standards for Canalside were an influence, but a design review committee of Erie Canal Harbor Development allowed “a lot of leeway” in interpreting them.

The biggest challenge, he said, was working with an ambitious construction schedule that included a harsh winter season. The timetable – with Mortenson Construction as the construction manager – was reached.

Cravotta was involved with the design of many aspects of the project, especially (716) Food and Sports, Tim Hortons and the locker rooms. So was BHNT Architects of Buffalo. Kim Pegula made several trips to Kansas City to meet with Populous officials and to Denver to meet with Design Force, the hotel designer.

“Kim has been part of every step as far as design,” said Cravotta, who has a background in architecture and exhibit storytelling. “She is, in my experience, an easy person to work with. You would think people – with all of that wealth – would run roughshod over a project like this, but she leaves the work to the professionals and, like anyone else, wants things maybe slightly or totally different, but it’s not a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of relationship.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown hailed the Pegulas’ HarborCenter project while attending a conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

“A bigger, better, bolder Buffalo is what this is all about,” Brown said.

An estimated 600 construction jobs were created, with hundreds of permanent jobs now to follow.

Officials project that HarborCenter will generate some $48 million in state and federal taxes over the next 10 years.

The project received nearly $37 million in tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, with an additional $20 million anticipated in state brownfield tax credits.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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