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Koelmel leaving HarborCenter to seek new challenge in community

John R. Koelmel, the charismatic and boisterous former Buffalo banker who became the face of the Buffalo Sabres’ HarborCenter project, is seeking a new challenge in the community – one that he says will allow him to “make a difference and contribute” – after he steps down from his current job over the next couple of months.

The Buffalo Sabres and HarborCenter announced early Tuesday that Koelmel is leaving his post as president of the hockey, entertainment and lodging destination as construction of the 20-story downtown project nears completion.

The team did not say why he is leaving or what he would do next. But in an interview, Koelmel, 62, said he was brought on two years ago to shepherd the project through to completion, and feels he has accomplished what he set out to do. The dual NHL-sized ice rinks, five-story parking ramp and two restaurants opened in late October and the Buffalo Marriott HarborCenter is slated for opening by late summer.

“You know me. I’m not one to hang around any longer than I’m needed, any longer than I’m relevant,” Koelmel said. “My work is done, and it’s time for me to move on.”

Koelmel’s reputation as a community leader has grown in recent years as he has taken on high-profile roles in government and the nonprofit sector, on top of his business positions. With a booming voice, exuberant personality and gregarious manner, Koelmel has become one of the region’s best-known and most outspoken boosters for the region.

Over his career, he has led the Buffalo office of major public accounting firm KPMG, and then directed the rapid growth of First Niagara Financial Group into what is now the area’s second-largest bank. He also led the bank’s investments in Larkinville, supporting the redevelopment vision of Howard Zemsky, and he put the bank’s name on the Sabres’ home arena.

At HarborCenter, he frequently sought to work with the city and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. to coordinate waterfront growth, and talked about the Sabres’ project as part of the community’s larger plan.

He’s currently chairman of two powerful boards – the New York Power Authority and Kaleida Health – and he also serves on the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council and the board of the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology. He has served as chairman of the Buffalo Place downtown business improvement district. And he has spoken out on major subjects affecting the Western New York community at large, from economic development and the growth of Canalside to social issues and Buffalo’s poor-performing schools.

All of that hasn’t happened without some criticism of his management style and decisions, especially his appetite for aggressive growth during his stewardship of First Niagara. He was ousted by the bank’s board two years ago after the purchase of HSBC Bank USA’s entire upstate New York banking network proved too costly for shareholders.

But he quickly landed on his feet when Terry and Kim Pegula hired him as president of HarborCenter in July 2013, just three months after they broke ground on the Webster Block in front of the Sabres arena.

“It was an opportunity for me to support them, bring some leadership, credibility, and visibility to an incredibly important project ... to ensure what was a courageous game-changing investment was all that it could be,” Koelmel said.

Since then, Koelmel has overseen the recruitment of more than 350 employees, the ongoing construction, the opening of the facilities and the booking of business. “His business acumen, community presence and strong leadership have served us well as we look forward to our first full year of operations and to the opening of the retail and hotel components of the project in the months ahead,” said Kim Pegula.

HarborCenter, with a price tag that already exceeds $200 million, is one of the largest development projects in Buffalo in decades. Since opening in late October, the rinks, a Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop restaurant and (716) sports bar and restaurant have drawn tens of thousands of visitors, with multiple weekend-long college, amateur and youth hockey events.

Construction continues on the 12-story, 205-room full-service Marriott above the northwest corner of the rinks, with exterior glazing now 80 percent complete. Plans are underway for a 5,000-square-foot retail “mini-mall” along Main Street, with women’s fashion and accessory boutique Red Siren identified last week as the first of four small retail tenants that will open in June.

Koelmel said he hasn’t “begun to consider the range of opportunities” that might be available to him in the near future. “While transition was inevitable here, I haven’t focused my efforts or attention on other than the responsibilities I had here at HarborCenter,” he said. “I haven’t pursued, explored or considered what’s next.”

But he said Tuesday that he’s certainly not done. “I’m not looking to kick back,” he said. “The fire in the belly burns as bright as ever and I look forward to what the future holds.”

For now, Koelmel’s responsibilities will gradually be assumed by Cliff Benson, chief development officer of the Buffalo Sabres, and Stan Makowski, vice president of HarborCenter and stadium operations. They will work with Kim Pegula, president and CEO of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, to oversee HarborCenter’s remaining construction and ongoing operations “as Koelmel transitions from the company over the next several months,” according to a press release.

“I’m comfortable that I’ve fulfilled my commitment, my promise to Terry and Kim in terms of seeing this through,” Koelmel said. “The project is well-advanced in terms of its construction and we’re clearly in the home stretch of that, with little if any potential risk of finalized execution in the months ahead. I couldn’t be more proud of what’s been accomplished ... and I’m very confident and comfortable that the HarborCenter organization is well-positioned to not only sustain the momentum that we’ve created but build on it.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com email: drobinson@buffnews.com