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Column: Welcome to Buffalo, a city on the rebound

Welcome, NCAA basketball fans. We’re happy to have you – and, believe it or not, you’re lucky to be here.

The national word on Buffalo is getting out. It’s a good thing you got to our reviving city in these sweet, heady years before the roads get gridlocked, hotel prices soar, restaurants are forever booked and the locals resent the endless glut of tourists.

No, at least for the time being, we’re still our folksy, charming, un-jaded selves: Eager to please, ready to serve and anxious to show you a good time. And sometimes, that good time – for better or worse – doesn’t end until 4 a.m.

We even, after the mildest February in history, dialed up a blast of snow and cold to fulfill your Buffalo expectations. You did bring a hat, right?

I get it. You’re here to eat, drink and – on games-free Friday – take a look around. So we’ll keep this simple.

There’s no big-city subway. But the single-line Metro Rail runs along the city’s spine, ends at NCAA tourney site KeyBank Center and provides a helluva free ride. It gets you within steps of most of downtown’s hotels, taverns and restaurants.

Get off at the Fountain Plaza stop for the Chippewa district. Once a hive of prostitutes, peep shows and pawn shops, it was transformed a generation ago into a critical mass of bars, restaurants, bars, hotels and bars. Hit it during the 90-minute break in Thursday’s action, or – particularly if you’re under 30 -- for late-night games of a different sort.

It gets funkier further uptown, along Allen Street. I’d be remiss not to recommend, for a later-night crawl, dive bar extraordinaire The Pink Flamingo (a.k.a. Old Pink). Within a short stumble are a dozen other fine establishments.

The Metro Rail ride doubles as a sightseeing tour. Downtown is an open-air architectural museum, dripping with the grand remnants of our early 20th-century prosperity. Many of the century-old structures have in recent years been resurrected as living space for empty nesters and millennials.

Peer up Court Street to view the art deco masterpiece of City Hall, squaring its huge shoulders to the Lake Erie winds. The obelisk at its doorstep is the McKinley Monument, erected as a de facto “sorry about that” after the 26th president was assassinated here by an anarchist. Silver lining: His 1901 demise elevated Teddy Roosevelt to the White House.

[Gallery: A closer look at Buffalo City Hall]

Yes, that’s actual gold leaf in the sunburst atop the old Golddome (now M&T Bank) building. Rolling farther downtown, a terra cotta sheath marks the 13-story Guaranty Building. Louis Sullivan’s 1896 icon was among America’s first skyscrapers, made possible by the advent of structural steel. Across Main Street, the ornately stoic Ellicott Square building, with its ring of roofline gargoyles and lovely atrium (take a peek, it’s open), was once the world’s largest office structure.

[Gallery: A Closer Look: Guaranty Building]

But you didn’t come here for the architecture. Metro Rail terminates at NCAA-hub KeyBank Center and its gleaming new neighbor, HarborCenter. Inside its 20-story shell find a hotel, shops, parking ramp, ice rinks and – wait for it -- the city’s premier sports bar/restaurant, featuring a 38-foot flat screen TV. No worries if you forget your eyeglasses.

The House That Pegulas Built (with some public help) is emblematic of downtown’s revival. The site was a parking lot when the NCAAs last came three years ago. Terry and Kim Pegula saved the Bills for Buffalo and locked down the Sabres as well (yes, the couple own both of the region’s major pro sports teams). Pegula, who has local roots, became an instant billionaire when fracking technology made prime real estate of his shale-rich rural expanse. He became an instant hero by spurning heftier profits in a bigger city to keep the Bills here.

Adjacent to HarborCenter is Canalside, the history-themed downtown waterfront. At the mouth of the Buffalo River is Commercial Slip, the historic 1826 terminus of the waterway that transformed America. Community pressure prompted the state to unearth and rewater the Erie Canal landmark some 15 years ago.

Hoops fans seeking games of chance can venture a few blocks east of the basketball arena to the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino, in the homestretch of a $40 million upgrade.

We interrupt this visitors’ guide for the inevitable mention of the chicken wing. Yes, this is the birthplace of the ‘Buffalo Wing’ (we just call them wings), the snack food that provoked countless guilt-laden health club memberships.

And yes, the mother of invention’s restaurant, the late Teressa Bellissimo’s renowned Anchor Bar, still thrives at the corner of Main and North Streets. Don’t despair if you can’t get there. Wings in Buffalo are like bottles of wine in Paris – it’s tough to get a bad one, wherever you go. Mix in a bite of celery, to derail the nutritional guilt trip.

Temperatures are supposed to venture into the high 30s by Friday, toasty enough for a trek to Niagara Falls. The natural wonder is a mere 20 miles north, with the NFTA running express buses from its downtown terminal and hotels offering shuttles.

[Gallery: Niagara Falls in winter]

The U.S. side of the falls is more park-like, but – I hate to admit it – the better views are from across the border. Along with it come wax museums, arcades and other touristy distractions. But if you didn’t bring your passport (or a security-enhanced driver’s license), you can’t get there from here.

Alas, all is not perfect. Poverty still grips many a Dollar Store-laden city neighborhood. Downtown’s largest building, One Seneca Tower, is empty – vacuumed out by primary tenant HSBC Bank’s recent abandonment. A Washington D.C. developer has rehab plans.

And no, Virginia (Tech), there is no Uber. Or Lyft. The ride-hailing companies have yet to venture upstate, blocked by a vigorous taxi lobby in Albany. The threat of competition has, however, forced local cabbies to step up their game.  Promised is a massive presence near the arena and throughout downtown.

Any concerns or questions, check #HoopsBuf on Twitter or grab any volunteer bearing an orange ‘Ask Me’ placard. Make a friend by mentioning those great Jim Kelly/Bruce Smith-era Bills teams. Avoid conflict by not recalling what happened at four straight Super Bowls.

More than anything, enjoy Buffalo and pack good memories when you leave. It’s only a matter of time, given the pace of revival, until we get overcrowded, jaded and inhospitable. Years from now, you can say you knew us when.

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