It's tee time on the riverfront in downtown Buffalo – on Noah's Ark.
The group planning a new entertainment complex on Ganson Street, not far from RiverWorks, unveiled details Friday of the $30 million golf-focused project, which the developers – including OnCore Golf Technology CEO Keith Blakely and Buffalo RiverWorks co-founder Doug Swift – hope will set a new standard for such facilities worldwide.
Designed to fit on a small urban space, officials said the new OnCore Buffalo facility is envisioned as a year-round sports and hospitality venue, aimed at golfers and others, of all ages and demographics.
The OnCore Buffalo project is the latest in a string of developments along Buffalo's waterfront, particularly along the once-polluted Buffalo River, where environmentalists and city officials have worked to both restore the natural habitat and make Ohio Street more attractive for investment.
Starting with RiverWorks on Ganson several years ago, followed by a pair of new apartment buildings on Ohio, and more recently the additional spinoff projects on neighboring streets, the area is rapidly becoming a destination for sports, recreation, entertainment and dining, alongside the growing residential presence.
"It’s a natural next step for the trajectory that Buffalo is on, and for where the Buffalo River is going," Swift said. "These kinds of projects are going to keep coming. It’s the wave of the future."
At a time of declining interest in golf nationally, the new venture is intended to lure new people to the sport, and is also geared to attract corporate meetings, private parties and other events. At $40 to rent a bay for one hour, for up to six people, it's also meant to be affordable.
It will feature a long driving range with 72 stacked hitting bays on a four-story structure, topped by a six-story hotel with at least 120 rooms, a sports bar and restaurant, and meeting space. The astroturf range, with 11 bright-red target greens, will be enclosed by a giant wall of tensile fabric and polyester mesh netting across a lightweight steel frame to keep the balls inside, and to shield golfers from the elements. The building will be heated, but the range will not be completely covered.
The entire ship-shaped complex – a tribute to Buffalo's maritime history – will be supported on piers above a level of covered parking underneath, for 225 vehicles. Pedestrians in the parking area will be able to look up through the ceiling to see the balls coming onto the greens. Additional surface parking will also be available for another 125 spaces.
The project will encompass about four acres of a seven-acre brownfield parcel, leaving plenty of additional room for future development, including along the Buffalo River and a 550-foot concrete wharf.
The project is fully funded, and Blakely and Swift hope to start construction next year, with an opening in 2021 after 12 to 16 months of work. It will likely qualify for state brownfield tax credits, and is located in a qualified opportunity zone, but the team is not seeking other public funding.
"We didn’t want any of that to slow this up," Blakely said. "This is a project that we want to get up and running as quickly as we can."
As many as 500 full-time permanent jobs are expected to be created by the venture, which the developers hope will lure visitors from not only Western New York, but also from Pennsylvania and Southern Ontario.
The development group, which also includes former Carubba Collision CEO Joe Carubba, has been working quietly for more than five years to bring the new project to fruition. In late August, the group purchased the Kelly Island property at 145 Ganson St. from G.W. Burnett Trucking Co., paying $3.5 million for the site across the river from the Bison City Rod and Gun Club.
The property is located further down Ganson from RiverWorks, near Silo City. It's also near the two new apartment buildings on Ohio, as well as Ellicott Development Co.'s new Cooperage redevelopment, including Resurgence Brewing Co. and a new climbing gym.
A British company called Topgolf began introducing a golf entertainment concept to the United States in 2005, with a driving range that included competitive games, electronic targets, a clubhouse with food and beverage, and other opportunities to socialize. The first one opened in Alexandria, Va., outside Washington, and Topgolf now has 50 locations nationwide – including Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
OnCore Buffalo is based on that model, after the golf ball manufacturer was approached several years ago by one of the original developers of the Topgolf in Alexandria. But what makes it unusual is the design that allows for a smaller physical presence than normally needed for golf-based entertainment, which usually makes them hard to locate in the middle of a city. A typical Topgolf facility is 12 to 15 acres.
"What you're going to see will likely become the gold standard of golf and sports entertainment facilities," Blakely said. "OnCore Buffalo will be like nothing else currently in existence."
Other downtown sites are under consideration for similar projects in Knoxville, Columbus, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Phoenix, New York City, Denver and Washington, D.C., the developers said.
"This is being built and tested for the first time here in Buffalo, which is really exciting," Swift said. "This is a great environment to do that because of the extreme conditions that we have here. If we can build it here and make it work, we can make it work anywhere."
The new facility focuses not only on entertainment, but on helping golfers enhance their game. When completed, it will feature a three-tiered golf driving range that includes radar and camera systems in each hitting bay to help golfers track their balls, measure their swings and improve their overall play. The technology will offer an analysis of each shot, measuring both club and ball data like ball speed, swing speed, smash factor, distance, spin rate, spin angle, launch angle and apex. OnCore's golf balls will be used.
The elevated "game board" will resemble a mix between a carnival display, a video game and a pinball machine. It will feature targets ranging from 50 yards to 170 yards from the hitting bays, plus a brightly lit back wall with additional targets at distances up to 250 yards.
Customers will be able to record their swing and get real-time instructional advice from onsite staff. And all of the information will be saved for customers to pull up later on mobile devices and online through a cloud-based website.
There will also be "alternative experiences" for nongolfers, such as "augmented and mixed reality," the developers said. Various other games – for entertainment and competition – will be shown on monitors in each hitting bay. Plans include full-service food and beverage options at the hitting bays and throughout the complex – including self-service beer walls.
The hotel upstairs will include 120 to 160 rooms, plus banquet, event and meeting space. Officials are still evaluating brands for the hotel, or may opt to run as an unflagged independent.
Meanwhile, OnCore Buffalo officials are considering a range of other sports and entertainment ideas for the rest of the land, including year-round indoor surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding, as well as additional bays for simulated baseball, basketball, hockey and archery competitions.
Formal plans have not yet been submitted to the city to start the municipal approval process. Developers will hold a neighborhood meeting "in the near future" for residents of the Old First Ward to learn more about the project. A separate project presentation and informational meeting for the public will be held at 6 p.m. on Oct. 9, at the Old First Ward Community Center.