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As they do every morning, about 100 construction workers on the downtown HarborCenter project gathered outside at about 7 a.m. today, just west of the Sabres Store, to stretch and get acclimated to the frigid weather.

This was a special day, though, and not just because the mid-morning temperature hovered between 0 and 1 degrees, with a wind chill reading of 14 degrees below zero.

It also was the day that a huge hydraulic mobile crane lifted the 51,000-pound “ice plant” – an almost-turquoise-blue piece of equipment that will make ice for the two rinks – from the ground to the fifth floor of the quickly rising structure just north of First Niagara Center.

That big lift was rescheduled from Thursday, because of the heavy, driving snow downtown.

But today was a largely blue-sky morning, with moderate wind and no snow.

Still, the workers donned insulated thermal gloves, face warmers, hard-hat liners, fleeces, long underwear and plenty of layers, as they battled the frigid conditions.

“The number-one concern is the safety of the workers,” said Ryan Poropat, project superintendent for Mortenson Construction. “Way behind that is everything else, including productivity.”

That’s why project leaders emphasized that it was OK for any workers to take a break, if they were too cold. And the rising structure already has three “warming” areas for workers.

Workers started the day with 10 to 15 minutes of runners’ stretches, arm circles and upper-body stretching.

“I like to keep the warm-up outside because I want guys to get the feel for how cold it is and what we’re going to be working in today,” said Frankie Ventura, safety consultant for Gateway Concrete.

And what was their response?

“You hear a lot of grunts and groans,” Ventura said.

Ventura has one coping mechanism for dealing with the extreme cold.

“Basically, this is what we do for a living,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go outside your mind and pretend you’re in a warm climate, where it’s not so cold.”

His favorite hot-weather fantasy: a 90-degree day in Hawaii.

Despite the cold, morale on the project is high, for one basic reason.

“It gives you, as a union man, I want to say bragging rights in your career,” Ventura said of the project. “Besides pride in our work, it’s a monument of what we built in the city of Buffalo, for Buffalo.”

Some of these workers have built parking garages and hotels, but this project also has a pair of elevated ice rinks, and no one has worked on a project like that.

“It’s a once-in-a-career-type job,” Poropat added.

He’s from Chicago, and he knows what he plans to do after this project is finished and he’s back home.

He wants to book a room at the hotel he helped build and bring his father, father-in-law and son back here, to see the Sabres play his hometown Blackhawks.

Poropat was too politically correct to say, on the record, which team he’d be rooting for, although he did say he’d be rooting for South Buffalo’s own Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks’ young star.

Ventura knows what he’ll say, years from now, when he passes by the HarborCenter project.

“Look at the beautiful palace we built.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com