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As NHL Draft crowd arrives, Buffalo shows it’s ready for prime time

I’m not holding my breath, crossing my fingers and waiting for the shoe to drop.

For the first time in, well, forever, Buffalo is hosting a big event and I have little anxiety. I suspect I’m not alone.

People came from parts distant for this weekend’s NHL Draft. The world has often come to us over the years, from NCAA basketball tournaments to college hockey’s Frozen Four to urban and architectural gatherings.

For the first time, I have no low hum of trepidation, no nagging fear that somebody will dis our city, make an “armpit of America” crack or otherwise force us to deflect and defend.

Downtown has never been as ready for prime time as it is today.

Finally, hosting a big event is more about showing off what we’ve got than apologizing for what we don’t.

It’s a lot easier to accept congratulations than to make excuses. To puff out our collective chest rather than duck and cover.

It’s been a long time coming.

From Canalside through downtown, the landscape has in recent years transformed.

When a horde of visitors descend, I no longer feel the need to strap on the civic armor or put Visit Buffalo Niagara officials on speed dial. Gone are the days of launching counterattacks to anything from Tom Brady’s downtown hotel putdowns to a Toronto Maple Leaf’s tweets about the city’s bleak midwinter landscape (like it’s temperate in Toronto in January).

Unfortunately, there was usually a jolt of truth behind the snark.

Yes, instead of a grand vista, we had a vast parking lot at the door of First Niagara Center. Nearby was an empty Aud, later displaced by a giant hole in the ground. You could barely get to the downtown waterfront, for all the weeds and fences, much less hang out there. We had stately but empty downtown buildings. Past-their-prime hotels. Unclustered bars and eateries.

I’ll stop there, before anyone contemplates walking into traffic.

I’ve lived here for 35 years and, make no mistake, Buffalo has always been a great place. Great architecture, culture, sports, lake, summers, sense of community, quality (and cost) of living and neighborhoods stocked with lovely 19th-century Victorian houses. But it wasn’t a great “event” city. It was more of an insiders’ town, a place of hidden charms, where you had to know where to go and how to get there. We didn’t even have a certified destination bar/restaurant district until Chippewa spawned in the ’90s.

Downtown’s charms are now apparent, its attributes obvious and its amenities easy to find. Which is what visitors want – and deserve.

From Canalside through downtown, the transformation in recent years is a tale of two cities – Old Buffalo and New Buffalo. Canalside’s waterfront park, from Adirondack chairs to paddle boats, is downtown’s history-centric front lawn – a vast uptick from weeds and a giant hole. The 20-story HarborCenter now stands outside the arena’s door, with its Marriott Hotel and multi-TV’ed sports bar/restaurant. Across the street, the red-bricked Courtyard Marriott replaced a wart-ugly state office building. A handful of new eateries stand within a slapshot of the arena. Thousands of people are living in rehabbed downtown buildings, not just passing through on the way to work. Even the once-abysmal chrysalis of Main Street behind the downtown Hyatt has transformed into restaurant row.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” Kristen Odland, a sportswriter for the Calgary Herald, told me Friday at Canalside. “I was kind of skeptical about coming here to cover the draft.”

Work brought her here several times in recent years, as Canalside transformed and HarborCenter was built.

“It’s much more inviting than it used to be,” Odland said. “Erie Basin Marina, that’s beautiful. You just want to get out and walk around.”

The prime Twitter complaint of out-of-towners is the absence of Uber, the private car/taxi service. And that’s out of our of local hands, a failure of state lawmakers.

Scott Cullen, sports columnist for from Toronto, is long familiar with Buffalo.

“I was just thinking, walking through Canalside, that it looks like you’ve made a lot of effort down here,” he told me. “It’s a lot more appealing.”

I spoke with more than a dozen people at Canalside. It was mostly an echo chamber: Nice. Clean. Beautiful. Inviting.

Granted, not everybody is going to be happy with everything. Buffalo’s rebirth is still a work in progress. Downtown and Canalside are just a slice of the Buffalo story, our civic storefront window. But it’s prime area for tourists, it’s where visitor impressions are stamped and it’s what a city needs to have going for it, if it’s going anywhere.

Rich Palmer and his son, 22, are NHL fans from Burlington, Vt., here for the first time.

“It’s beautiful down here,” he said Friday at Canalside. “Buffalo is a big city to us. It seems clean, relaxing, safe. You guys should be very proud.”

We are, Rich. We are.