The Buffalo Sabres are planning to invest significantly more money to develop a hockey destination on the waterfront and revealed plans Tuesday for a “center of excellence” to train players and maintain local talent.
The center is intended to draw skaters and coaches from Buffalo and nearby cities rich in hockey players, Sabres officials said during an unveiling of the latest version of their HARBORcenter plans.
Cliff Benson, the team’s chief development officer, said the entire complex will cost about $170 million, nearly 40 percent more than originally anticipated. Benson said he wants it to be used by all kinds of hockey and figure-skating enthusiasts, from city schoolchildren and local organizations to college and semipro players. “This is for the community,” he said. “That is why we’re building this.”
The Sabres looked at rugby programs in New Zealand and soccer programs in Barcelona, Spain, in developing the center for excellence, which they hope will attract players who would otherwise seek high-level hockey training in other cities.
“What we want to be out of this facility is the place where every good hockey player comes, feels like they have to come there for the kind of training we’re going to provide and ... we want to keep the local kids here,” Benson said.
The new rinks will comply with National Hockey League standards. Benson said he expects they will become the new home for the Junior Sabres and a Division I hockey team, likely Canisius College.
“If you’re going to have a center of excellence, if you’re going to have a place where people are going to come and train, if we want to bring the best coaches in the country in here to do clinics, you have to have the best ice,” he said.
The area between Syracuse and Erie, Pa., has the fourth-highest density of hockey players in the country, and the Sabres expect the rinks to be highly used by Canadians, Benson said.
When the city chose the HARBORcenter plan for two indoor ice rinks, a hotel, parking ramp and restaurant on the Webster Block parking lot north of the Sabres’ First Niagara Center home, the team estimated it would spend $123 million, a figure that is referenced in the parties’ agreement that was filed with the Common Council last week.
But Tuesday Benson said that the existing conditions on the site and the needed infrastructure to put two ice rinks on top of the ramp are costly and that the project price is now around $170 million.
“It is structurally a very, very complex parcel to build on,” he said.
Project sponsors are seeking sales, mortgage and partial property tax credits from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, valued at about $27 million, and additional tax credits related to cleaning up the site through the state’s brownfield program.
The ECIDA’s policy committee approved the project Monday. and the full board will vote next Tuesday.
Not everyone was pleased with the project during a public hearing Tuesday in City Hall.
Four speakers, including the owner of a neighboring business, spoke against aspects of the project, saying it would contribute to congestion and that it did not resemble historic architecture styles.
“The central planning issue that we’re facing in Buffalo today ... is how to connect downtown to the waterfront,” said Tim Tielman, whose Neighborhood Workshop consultancy developed an alternative concept on behalf of John and Shelley McKendry, who own Hi-Temp Fabrication, at 79 Perry St. near the site.
The Sabres project adds to the separation of downtown from the water, as does the Skyway, Tielman said.
“They’re trying to do too much in too small a space,” John McKendry said.
The Sabres already have incorporated into their design suggestions from the local design community and from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., Benson said. “People are going to have different views about this, and we want to be as sensitive as we can and still move forward with what we think is a great investment in Buffalo,” he said.
A 200-room hotel does not yet have an operator, but Benson said a deal is close.
The 845-space parking ramp will be available for use by guests of One Canalside, the former Donovan State Office Building, and by employees of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, who will be able to use Metro Rail to get to work.
The project is not subject to city Planning Board approval, even though the parcel is owned by the city and is being sold to HARBORcenter LLC as part of the development deal. The land falls inside the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s footprint, and the Planning Board on Tuesday recommended the corporation approve it.
The Common Council will hold a public hearing and consider selling the Webster Block to HARBORcenter for $2.2 million next Tuesday.
If all approvals are granted, Benson said he expects a groundbreaking to take place on March 1, with the complex, but not the hotel, expected to open by September 2014.