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New ice rink is turning Canalside into a true year-round destination

Buffalo’s waterfront is turning into a year-round destination with the opening of the Ice at Canalside.

Area residents are flocking to the outdoor skating rink, at the re-created canals on the site of the old Memorial Auditorium. Last weekend’s attendance reached 6,000 and winter has barely set in.

Few would have predicted the excitement generated by the rink, much larger than the one at Rockefeller Center. And that builds on a summer of events, including concerts featuring major and minor acts, Fourth of July fireworks and outdoor viewing parties for World Cup soccer. And there is a ton of daily activities, featured artisans, kayak, canoe and water bike rentals, charter boat trips and a visit to Shark Girl.

Now, there’s ice skating drawing more people downtown, as detailed in a recent story in The News. Families are coming downtown for a wholesome dose of fresh air and exercise on the ice. If you don’t have skates, they can be rented for a few dollars. Ice time is a few dollars more – cheaper than going to the movies. If you don’t skate, you can ride an ice bike. Soon, there will be curling. Dust off those brooms.

For spectators, there are heating stations and benches and Adirondack chairs, and vendor booths to do a little shopping.

This is an amazing turnaround for that once sorely underused property. Think about it. Not long ago, Buffalo’s waterfront was a joke. Remember entertainer Bette Midler’s wry but accurate quip a decade ago? “I haven’t been here since 1978 … I love what you’ve done to the waterfront.”

The Divine Miss M’s deadpan observation drew laughter, but it was spot-on.

Buffalonians have spent years developing a thick skin. It’s a conditioned response for a place where winters are tough, as the rest of the country likes to remind us. There’s nothing we can do about the weather, except make the best of it. Skiers have been doing that for decades. Now skaters have an enviable facility on our rapidly improving waterfront.

Developing that resource has been a hard slog that didn’t gain momentum until Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, figured out how to wrestle the public’s money from the New York Power Authority. The sky has been the limit for the waterfront since that 2005 settlement with the authority freed up long-term economic development funds. That, along with ongoing efforts of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., have produced the type of crowds, now year-round, that were inconceivable a decade ago.

The early progress on the waterfront has been the catalyst for a huge private development by Buffalo Sabres and now Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who poured millions of their own dollars into the newly built HarborCenter. That project, where a high-rise hotel is still under construction, has become an attraction in its own right as a place for young hockey players to develop their talent.

HarborCenter is also home to (716), a busy restaurant and bar, along with a Tim Hortons.

Still to come are several more buildings, including a children’s museum, a comfort station/visitor center and restaurants and apartments. Once upon a time, few could have imagined thousands of visitors converging on Buffalo’s waterfront on a hot, sunny day, much less in the middle of a frigid winter.

Bette Midler wouldn’t recognize the place.