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Catalyst of Canalside basks in the glow of its progress

No one on a sunny afternoon gave him a second look. Young lovers strolled hand-in-hand across the bowstring bridge. Women in workout gear stepped quickly, yoga mats in hand. Older folks in Adirondack chairs soaked up rays on the downtown waterfront’s communal front yard.

To them, he was just another guy livin’ the dream at Canalside, where thousands flock on warm days and nights. That’s fine with Mark Goldman. Had they known who he was, some undoubtedly would have uttered a “thank you.”

No matter. Seeing people sunning, picnicking, kayaking or riding the bike ferry is reward enough. Nothing satisfies more than a vision realized, a battle won.

“It’s gratifying, absolutely, seeing what’s happened,” Goldman told me, sitting on a bench at historic Commercial Slip. “Projects can be driven by programming and attractions, not infrastructure.”

Goldman – activist, historian, entrepreneur – is at the hub of a couple of the city’s turning points. His opening of the Calumet Arts Cafe in the early ’90s sparked the Chippewa Street revival. Although it didn’t become the culture-rich stretch he imagined, it gave Buffalo an entertainment district.

For most, that would’ve been enough. But his import of the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” development idea, in the wake of Bass Pro’s fortunate decision not to take our money and come, replaced the community’s long-misfiring “magic bullet” model – and shaped the future of Canalside.

Into the void leaped Goldman, who helped lead the fight against Bass Pro. His late brother, Tony, was a preservation-minded developer who knew Fred Kent, of Manhattan’s Projects for Public Spaces. Mark Goldman brought them up here to outline a new waterfront vision. Kent laid out the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” development model to a packed City Honors auditorium, including several Canal Harbor board members. It was a watershed moment.

“Having played somewhat of a role in getting Bass Pro out, I felt a responsibility to help shape what happened next,” said Goldman.

At 72, he is bulldog-fit, his curly hair mostly dark, his eyes still blazing.

“I didn’t just want to be, ‘Don’t do this,’ ” he added. “I had a desire to do something that would work.”

Kent’s message was simple: You don’t have to build a mammoth waterfront destination. There is a smaller, simpler, step-at-a-time model. Have faith in the power of riverfront, grass, canvas awnings, craft booths, concerts, ice cream stands and Adirondack chairs, in a historic downtown site. People will come. Commerce will follow.

“The whole idea, in using public money, is be careful,” Goldman said. “If yoga on the waterfront doesn’t work, the teacher goes home and you’re out 50 bucks. If a Bass Pro doesn’t work, you’re out $35 million.”

Hundreds of people came to public workshops to vet ideas and shape a plan. The more progressive Canal Harbor board members – David Colligan, Julie O’Neill – led the others to water. Big-box die-hards on the board moved on. The public’s demand for “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” became public policy.

That was – astoundingly, given Canalside’s explosion – barely four years ago. Money slated for Bass Pro instead went to dig historically aligned canals, now a seasonal ice-skating/paddleboat attraction. The crowds sparked commerce, as Canalside restaurants and hotels opened. HarborCenter fast-forwarded development. A historic carousel that’s now available – which Goldman called “the smartest idea … a home run masquerading as a single” – should be the next addition.

There is plenty of credit to go around – from preservationists who persuaded the state to unearth the site’s history; to activists who opposed Bass Pro; to citizens who shaped a smaller-steps plan, to a Canal Harbor board that stopped dictating and started listening.

I’m not sure that any of it would have happened had Goldman not called for the right reinforcements.

“Now we’re in the sweet spot,” said Goldman. “The public shaped the plan, and the board signed on. They seized the opportunity to do the right thing.”

Thousands of people flock daily to Canalside. Wednesday afternoon, Goldman was just another face in the crowd. He wasn’t expecting a “thank you.” But I’m happy to extend one.