Rustbelt Renaissance in the Harbor

By: Malachite Karpie-Jones & Nathan Ress

News Contributors

From bartenders to Bylsma, the Canalside hype is real and only just getting started.

Far past the bustling realms of Elmwood and Hertel, a new visitor destination has emerged seemingly out of the rubble at the foot of the downtown corridor. The Erie Canal Harbor, or Canalside as it’s becoming locally known, is wrapping up its first full summer with complete attractions following a massive $52 million renovation haul that began in 2012. When construction was finalized this past spring, it didn’t take long for Buffalonians and tourists alike to flock to the Queen City’s new gem. Complete with several Buffalo-oriented businesses, new restaurant experiences, and massive green space beside the Skyway for concerts and festivals, Canalside will have hosted over one thousand events and seen over one million faces visit their attractions by the time 2015 comes to a close.

Canalside has become so much more than a couple waterfront restaurants and mom-pop shops in such a short period of time. Built in 1825 as the western terminus of the Erie Canal, it served as a hub of commercial prominence until its steady decline in the 1920s. Fast forward to 2005, the Erie Canal Harbor is little more than a massive parking lot and collection of debris from the Memorial Auditorium’s demolition. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and local business figures have recognized the area’s potential for economic growth in Western New York. Ten years and $52 million later, the Erie County Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) has completed their initial renovation of the 12.5 acre Inner and Outer Harbor

Kathy Hilliman, an experienced sailor with the family-owned-and-operated Spirit of Buffalo, spoke highly of the Harbor’s new changes and influx of clientele it has brought to Buffalo’s premier tour vessel.

“It’s been wonderful, our business is easily the best it’s ever been. The three years of renovation and waiting were absolutely well worth it.”

Brought down to the Erie Canal Harbor in May of 2009, The Spirit of Buffalo leads multiple themed tours down the Buffalo River and is one of several water-oriented attractions offered. A number of pedal boats and canoes can be rented by children and adults alike, with bigger features including the Buffalo River History Tours. Furthermore, the US Brig Niagara, a historical brigade that set sail in 1813, is set to be welcomed to the Harbor for public tours this Saturday and Sunday.

Food and drink are of course a main feature in Canalside’s latest upheaval, with the crown jewel being HARBORCENTER’s premier fan dining experience, the 716 Bar and Grill. 716 bartender Phil Merrilees of Clarence offered us a glimpse of what makes this Buffalo-sports themed eatery such a hot commodity among the recent changes.

716 has become a sort of focal point for visitors, allowing people to come check us out and then branch out to see everything the Harbor and downtown has to offer. The whole One Buffalo concept has really caught on with people, at any given night during the season we can get an unforgettable atmosphere in here. Whether it was the University at Buffalo Bulls game against WVU, the Sabres clinching Jack (Eichel) in the draft lottery, or those Bills games against Green Bay and the Oakland heartbreaker, we’ve had a lot to make some noise about from a fan perspective.”

Merrilees explained that 716 was an addition to a smaller HARBORCENTER plan that began with investment by the Pegula family. Bills and Sabres owner Terry Pegula was approached by his wife Kim who suggested more retail and various attractions be added to the facility in order to create a more complete visitor experience for visitors who were already drawn in by the two NHL regulation sized ice rinks and Marriot hotel. Alongside 716, a new Tim Horton’s and several local, unique businesses such as Red Siren, Modern Nostalgia, and Fowler’s Chocolates were added in the HARBORCENTER, which will house the Canisius College Golden Griffins ice hockey team for the second straight season.

“College kids are usually from all over the place,” Merrilees continues, “so we offer all the major sports channels on each table’s individual television, NHL Center Ice, NBA League Pass, MLB TV. So say you’re a kid from Chicago going to Canisius, you can come to 716 and catch every single Bulls or Bears or Cubs game you want.”

Local business personnel aren’t the only ones noticing Buffalo’s renaissance in their backyard. Walking down Washington Street between the HARBORCENTER Wednesday afternoon, Buffalo Sabres Head Coach Dan Bylsma caught up with The Griffin to weigh in on the newfound prosperity down at Canalside.

“I visited Canalside two, three years ago when some of the changes were starting to happen. So quickly it’s gone from gravel and nothing, to coming back this year in the summertime to an enormous transformation, it’s unrecognizable. Every night I’ve been down here this summer and it seems like there’s something different going on each time. One night we had both a concert at First Niagara, and then a Bison’s baseball game, and there were easily over thirty thousand people down here enjoying everything there is to offer.”

Between the past summer’s free Thursday shows, different daily themed events, and dozens of interactive services like horse-drawn carriage rides or Buffalo Pedal Tours, the scene downtown on any night is like nothing anyone from Buffalo has seen in decades. Businesses too are starting to notice a new flock of tourists with the Marriot hotel conveniently perched aside the Skyway. Bylsma also took note of the Golden Griffins who are readying themselves for another season; once again sharing the HARBORCENTER ice with the Buffalo Sabres.

“I didn’t get a chance to see Canisius’ old place, but it’s awesome that they get a chance to play in such a great facility. I look forward to the chance of catching a few games this season and seeing it packed with 2,000 people. All that noise, I know it’d be an awesome atmosphere.”

The changes that have inspired so many Buffalonians to believe in the city’s Rustbelt Renaissance at Canalside this past summer are neither slowing down nor ceasing. In 2007, the ECHDC was contracted with the New York Power Authority to receive an annual tranche of $3.5 million for the next fifty years. Many of this summer’s feature attractions are still available well into October, with ice skating and other frozen activities planned to keep interest high during Buffalo’s storied winters. Now that more progress is inevitable, it’s a better time than ever to fish out that CRAM pass, jump on the metro, and spend an afternoon seeing just a fraction of what Canalside has to offer.

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