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$200 million later, HarborCenter is among the city’s biggest projects

The final price tag of the HarborCenter complex – the entertainment and lodging destination at Canalside – will run between $200 million and $210 million.

That is nearly $40 million – or 22 percent – more than the original projection of $172.2 million, cited when the project was announced more than two years ago. Buffalo Sabres officials attribute the increase to significant design upgrades along the way, weather delays and added labor costs.

The final tally makes HarborCenter one of the most expensive projects ever in Buffalo, its price tag surpassed only by the development at Riverbend and a pair of projects on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. And all three of those are public projects, while HarborCenter is primarily a private-sector initiative.

Yet while the more than $200 million already represents a significant investment in downtown Buffalo, Sabres officials suggest even more is coming, both from team owners Terry and Kim Pegula and others motivated by what the Pegulas have built.

“I think it’s absolutely true that this was our big stake in the ground in the hopes of inspiring others,” said Cliff Benson, chief development officer for the Sabres and parent company Pegula Sports & Entertainment.

He hinted that even after spending a total of $1.6 billion to buy the Sabres and Buffalo Bills and construct HarborCenter, the Pegulas aren’t necessarily finished.

“Their goal all along has been to come and invest in Buffalo and make it a better place. I think that will continue to be the goal,” said Benson, a longtime confidante of the Pegulas. “I can’t say what might be next or when. But I certainly wouldn’t say they’re done.”

The HarborCenter project is one of the city’s most expensive private-sector investments. By contrast, the initial construction and recent renovations of the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino are estimated to total $170 million, and Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s Conventus and Uniland Development Co.’s 250 Delaware Avenue projects each are priced at $110 million.

Only the University at Buffalo’s new Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences ($375 million), the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital ($270 million) and the factory for SolarCity at Riverbend in South Buffalo ($250 million) are more expensive. And all three of those are public-sector projects, with far more government support than the tax breaks – $37 million from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency plus state brownfields tax credits – that the Pegulas received.

“It’s been a thrill and a blessing to be involved in the project, but as a local citizen, it’s just great and very exciting and very encouraging to have this type of investment in Buffalo, and I look forward to seeing what it inspires and what it’s a catalyst for as downtown and Canalside continues to develop,” said Stan Makowski, vice president of HarborCenter. “It’s an exciting time to be in Buffalo.”

The total cost was released as the Pegulas prepare to join hotel executives and public officials Monday morning for the grand-opening ceremony on the Canalside lawn across from the hotel’s Main Street entrance. Benson said the higher final cost was not a concern for the couple.

“They’re not upset at all. They’re quite pleased with the facility and the way it turned out,” Benson said. “Kim wanted to design something very special, something that made a real statement in Buffalo … something we haven’t seen here before.”

The complex, built on a former parking lot known as the Webster Block, features two NHL-sized ice rinks on top of a five-story, 850-space parking ramp, with a direct connection over Perry Street to the First Niagara Center where the Sabres play. That makes it the only three-rink complex in the National Hockey League, officials have noted.

The complex also includes the two-story 716 Food & Sport bar at the corner of Washington and Scott streets, which has 55 big-screen televisions throughout the restaurant and a 38-foot video screen above the 40-foot feature bar. There is also a Tim Hortons Café & Bake Shop at the corner of Main and Scott streets, with commemorative displays of the former Sabres defenseman who founded the coffee chain and a statue of him outside. And there is a four-store retail mini-mall on the Main Street side of the complex.

The hotel itself, the first flagship Marriott in the City of Buffalo, towers above one corner of the facility. It includes 205 rooms, plus another full-service restaurant, meeting and banquet space, a ground-floor entry, a seventh-floor lobby and dramatic views of the city and Lake Erie.

“People are really excited and thrilled with it, not just because of the investment they made, but because in some ways it changes the face of the whole waterfront there,” Benson said.

Benson and Makowski said the variation in cost stemmed from “dramatic” design changes over the course of the project, particularly to the hotel and restaurant, even as construction was underway.

“Certainly some of those increases were intentional, in terms of what we wanted the hotel to look like, what we wanted the sports bar to look like,” Benson said. “We were evolving as we go, so what we started with originally and what we ended up with were two very different designs.”

Overtime and additional labor costs were also factors, because of unexpected delays.

“We had challenges with two very difficult winters,” Benson said.

But that won’t affect the Pegulas’ spending on the Bills and Sabres themselves, or a potential future Bills stadium down the road, he said.

Still, “as you can imagine, we have a whole lot of things on our plate right now,” Benson said, “and we have to deal with that before we take another step.”