Diversify

“Something great is happening in Buffalo… There’s a real vibe around CanalSide”

— Ted Black, 8/29/12

Last year, with new Sabres ownership just settling in, they invited bloggers to team headquarters to drink some beer and ask a few questions of team president Ted Black. Chris got the invite and asked about the waterfront. Four months after Terry Pegula took over the team, this is what his right-hand man said about waterfront development.

“We’re not land developers. That’s not really our expertise and that’s not really our focus,” Black said, mentioning that he would love to see something positive happen on the waterfront. “Our focus is singular and that’s to make this the best organization and to win the Stanley Cup.”

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if you don’t believe what a bunch of bloggers heard. The response wasn’t all that shocking considering how early into the ownership period the team was.

Better yet, here’s what Black told Jim Fink of Buffalo Business First in April, days after it was announced that the city was looking for proposals for the Webster Block. Rumors of a partnership between the Sabres and Canisius College for a two-rink facility somewhere in Buffalo were already swirling, and some thought they may move that facility downtown. Cue the gigantic block quote.

Buffalo Sabres President Ted Black has heard the rumors.

Don’t believe them, he says.

Black is referring to rumblings that the Sabres may be bidding on the City of Buffalo-owned Webster Block, which just happens to sit right across the street from First Niagara Center. The street buzz is that the Sabres would like to construct a multi-rink facility somewhere near the arena that would serve, among other things, as the team’s practice complex. When Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced on April 1 that the city was accepting bids for the 1.7-acre Webster Block, a 300-car surface parking lot situated between First Niagara Center, the Donovan State Office Building and HSBC Atrium, many assumed the Sabres would be one of the first to respond to the RFP.

“I am aware of the rumors,” Black said. “But, we haven’t made any kind of decision.”

Interested bidders have until May 25 to inform the city of their pending offer. All bids must be into Buffalo by June 15.

“I take it as a compliment to us,” Black said of the rumors. “It tells me that people understand the Buffalo Sabres are open to exploring the art of the possible.”

And, yes, Black admits the Sabres are cognizant of the Webster Block bidding process.

“We certainly care what happens right outside our front door,” Black said.

Of course they did care, and submitted a bid of their own. The Sabres’ winning plan beat out a similar bid from Carl Paladino and had plenty of support from the community.

While some people just didn’t want to see Carl Paladino own more property downtown (and rightfully so), there is reason to like what the Sabres have in mind. Anything that turns a parking lot into a $123 million building is a good idea to me, and making that area habitable year-round is significant progress from the 40-ish home dates the Sabres provide.

Not to mention linking that building to First Niagara Center opens the door for more changes with that building as well. There aren’t many cosmetic improvements in store for the arena this year, but maybe with things in motion the NFTA can get its act together and grace us with a serviceable metro stop down there.

Team Pegula’s change of heart when it comes to waterfront development isn’t something they should be criticized for. If anything, it’s a sign they are starting to get comfortable with their role in Buffalo. Sports are fun and can directly impact the spirit, or mood, of a city; but they can also be an economic motor if they want to be.

Pegula’s foray into development shows the team wants to be an agent of change in the city, and that’s significant. This is no longer a group focused on hockey operations and little else, which they were back when that first blogger summit took place. While fine-tuning team operations in their first year of ownership, they’ve branched out in recent months and influenced things outside the rink, to high praise.

Making HARBORcenter a reality will be another huge step in that branching out. It makes the Sabres landowners and gives them further clout in the community. It could force the other seemingly endless number of organizations involved in the Waterfront to make a move, or at the very least bring some optimism to development.

When the Sabres won the rights to host the 2011 World Juniors in 2008, I wrote about the potential for changes downtown. While only a big deal to hockey fans, that kind of event could spark some progress downtown. I was excited.

Reading that now it’s disappointing to know how little has changed there in the years since. There were no new hotels, no new buildings and still little to do when Canadians flooded downtown to watch Russia beat them in the gold medal game. The tournament was a success, but its potential as a springboard for change fell flat.

With Wednesday’s news, it’s finally safe to say things are changing. There will be new hotel rooms downtown — both in the HARBORcenter complex and at the Donovan Building site — and cranes are already in the air at the Aud site. Fans long-asking for an NHL All-Star Game in Buffalo know lodging was a major issue for the team’s potential bid — one the Sabres themselves have admitted in the past. Things are changing, and the Sabres have suddenly taken the reigns in the process.

Hockey is hockey, and sports are sports; but there are bigger things in life. The phrase “Hockey Heaven” has been bandied about quite a bit in the months since Pegula’s first press conference in the arena atrium. The trophy case remains empty for the Sabres, but their goals have diversified. Frustration with the team aside, that seems like a good thing. Even with a subpar rookie season, Team Pegula seems ready for this kind of task.

There’s a lot more to life than 40 or so home games a year. Someday soon we’ll get to say the same thing about what happens on Perry Street in Buffalo.