Mike Schatzel sat at the bar Friday morning, gazing through a wall of windows at a passing sailboat. It was the last day of Schatzel's first summer as co-owner of the Liberty Hound, the downtown waterfront's first sit-down restaurant. More than a restaurant, the place was - in a sense - an experiment. A wildly successful experiment.
"It was like every day was Friday night, and every weekend was New Year's Eve," said Schatzel, a large guy with a dark beard. "We did twice the business we expected to."
Therein lies a larger story: Smaller, step-by-step development that leads to bigger things.
No, we do not need to trumpet our insecurity by offering pots of taxpayer gold to big-box retailers. We do not have to signal our desperation by begging outsiders to conceive waterfront mega-projects. Yes, we can do this ourselves. And it will be better than anything an outsider comes up with.
Case in point: Years ago, I sat in on an informal meeting with a nationally acclaimed waterfront developer. His idea for a "theme" for Buffalo was generic marine-type buildings that screamed Anywhere, USA. When your waterfront contains the most historic site on the transformative Erie Canal, it seemed to me that our "theme" was self-evident.
It took a while, but the powers-that-be came around. Hence, Canalside.
At the public's insistence, a state agency resurrected history at Erie Canal Harbor, restored cobblestone streets, turned the old Central Wharf into a waterfront park and, two summers ago, opened a snack stand. Streams of people came. Thursday at the Harbor concerts presented the space to thousands more. The table was set.
"When I first came down here," Schatzel said, "I was shocked by the amount of foot traffic."
Soon after, he and partner Jason Davidson opened the restaurant. Where crowds go, commerce follows.
The Old Way: Build it and hope they come. The Better Way: Build the roads and parks and bridges that bring people to the waterfront. Where crowds go, commerce follows.
It is no accident that the Sabres will soon invest millions in an ice rink/hotel complex on what for decades has been a parking lot. Across the street, the Donovan Building is being remade as a hotel and offices.
The ball keeps rolling. Bulldozers are re-digging the Erie Canal at the old Aud site. There are plans to reclaim Ohio Street, the back-door route from the Southtowns to downtown. Crews through the summer worked on waterfront parks and pathways south of downtown. The better the table is set, the more bars, restaurants, shops and condos we will see.
On a recent afternoon, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo - a driving force in waterfront development - watched as bulldozers expanded Gallagher Beach.
"We always waited for external influences to show us what to do, be it Bass Pro or whatever," Higgins told me. "We learned that we have to do it ourselves, to have anyone else believe in us."
For years, our waterfront was a grim landscape of warehouses, vacant lots and billboards. We clung to the hope that something better would happen, someday.
"Someday" is finally dawning. The filled seats at the Liberty Hound are just another ray.