In what has been a relatively large story around Buffalo, the Webster Block redevelopment project is imminent. It looks like there will be no stopping a new building from being erected on what I always referred to as “that empty lot outside the arena”. Now this could have great implications for the Sabres, not as a hockey team, but as a brand. This could turn the area around First Niagara into what is truly a hockey heaven if Terry Pegula has his way.
While no bid has been selected yet, Terry Pegula is at the front lines with a redevelopment plan. He along with two other development companies are interested in turning this lot into something more usable than yet another vast empty space in down town Buffalo, which in my opinion is needed. Buffalo has enough empty lots, it has enough abandoned buildings that for someone to pour money into one of them, especially one that is most visible to many tourists or people on business (that includes Lupul and Brady, by the way).
The proposal for the land as laid forth by the Pegula family would include two amateur hockey rinks, a sports bar, a 200 room hotel and parking which will presumably be used for youth hockey as well as professional hockey according to a Buffalo News article from last week. The other heavy weight development group in the running is Ellicott Development. If that name sounds rings a bell for you, it might be because you like to nerd out on local and state politics like myself. This company was founded by Buffalo’s own Carl Paladino. Buffalo Rising has a comprehensive write up on their proposal, so do yourself a favor and check it out here.
This project, no matter who wins the bid, will be huge for Buffalo, and would translate into success for the Sabres brand. However, I want what is best for Buffalo, and best for the Sabres. Carl Paladino and Ellicott Development are notoriously business welfare junkies, for example under the Empire Zone program, Paladino recieved $3.4 million in tax breaks to create jobs, of which he created 29. They have been charged with felony crimes and fined $500,000 for unsafe asbestos removal. And to top it all off, a man of his reputation is not a face that I want attached to Buffalo or the Sabres. Now, Terry Pegula probably has some dirt on him, some skeletons in the closet. He made his fortune on hydro-fraking the Marcellus Shale, which is not considered great for the environment or the drinking water around it. However, he is also the man who brought his fortune to the Sabres to help build hope in a city and team he loves and he did the same for his Alma-Mater, Penn State. His is a much easier pill to swallow than Mr. Paladino.
One aspect of Pegula’s plan that I particularly like is that it gives back to the community in the form of amateur hockey rinks. As a former youth hockey player in Buffalo, I can say without hesitation that Buffalo has too many ice rinks. I can also say that most of these ice rinks should have been condemned 30 years ago. Brighton Rink in Tonwanda has three walls. Bud Bakewell in Riverside smells and looks atrocious, the Holiday Twin rinks in Depew look modern if the year was 1962. With many more in as bad or worse condition as the ones I mentioned, I think this would be a great opportunity to keep improving youth hockey in the area and very naturally attach the Sabre name to it. With a hotel in the complex, major youth hockey tournaments can be hosted right next to First Niagara, exposing the Sabres as well as downtown Buffalo to outsiders.
Everything seems to be coming up Buffalo right now. Even the Economist thinks so. It is time for the city to do the right thing and give Pegula a chance to develop Lower Mainstreet and the Cobblestone neighborhood into a tourist friendly area that Buffalonians can be proud of. I think if given the opportunity, Terry Pegula and the Buffalo Sabres can actually make the area around the arena Hockey Heaven. A place where people want to watch hockey and play hockey for decades to come.