BUFFALO, N.Y. – Byron Brown is fine with either title, mayor of Buffalo or “Pegulaville,” which is what Sabres fans have begun affectionately referring to their city in tribute to the NHL franchise’s owner Terry Pegula.
It works either way, because Brown knows all too well that this rustbelt, hard-luck town with a reputation for chicken wings, harsh winters and two professional sports teams without a championship between them has been called far worse.
“I absolutely get a kick out of it,” Brown said, referring to the nickname “because it’s another positive way the community is being branded.”
He’s more impressed with the man behind the name, because of what Pegula has done for Buffalo in the 18 months since the Pennsylvania billionaire purchased the Sabres.
“He’s a person of action. He’s someone that gets things done,” Brown said. “One of the first conversations I had after he came to town is that he said, ‘I want to help you build Buffalo.'”
That vow is turning into reality because Pegulaville is in for an expansion.
The Pegula-backed and fully privately funded $123-million development proposal to build a multi-purpose complex on a downtown block across the street from the Sabres arena received the green light last week.
Construction is set to start in March on a 614,000 square-foot building that is designed to feature a 200-room hotel, two ice rinks (including one with an 1,800-seating capacity), retail/restaurant space and parking garage.
For Buffalo, it’s the latest in a string of under-construction and proposed developments set to be built on prime land along the newly redeveloped Canalside harbour front district.
For Pegula, who made his fortune in the natural gas industry and whose worth has been estimated at $3 billion, it’s his latest $100-million-plus endeavour.
Over the past two years, Pegula has committed more than $100 million to his alma mater Penn State to fund the construction of a hockey arena and elevate the school’s hockey program to Division I. He then spent nearly $200 million to purchase the Sabres and their minor league affiliate in Rochester.
And that doesn’t include the $8 million he spent on renovating the Sabres locker room or the some $140 million the team has committed in salary to sign free agents and secure its own stars.
Now he is turning his attention to the city itself.
“I’ve always been what you call a Northeasterner, and it just happens that my favourite hockey team resided in Buffalo,” said Pegula, who previously lived in western New York and now makes his home in Florida. “And I see where the city needs some assistance.”
Buffalo is but a shadow of the bustling manufacturing-driven and Erie Canal Great Lakes shipping gateway it was in its heyday.
It now ranks as the nation’s third-poorest city with 250,000 or more residents, behind only Detroit and Cleveland. And its population of 260,000 is half of what it was in the 1950s.
It was while Pegula was negotiating to purchase the Sabres that he informed his closest advisers that his presence in the city wouldn’t stop at hockey. Whether it was glancing at the undeveloped land around the city’s waterfront or seeing the aging grain mills just south of the Sabres arena, Pegula began considering ideas of how he could contribute.
That is when the opportunity to redevelop the former Webster Block parking lot was proposed.
“We’re excited to bring this thing together,” Pegula said. “When we get this thing done, hopefully, we’ll make Buffalo part of a hockey destination in the U.S. It’ll be a magnet and it’ll help everybody in the area.”
The Sabres estimate the new facility will annually attract 500,000 visitors. The ice rinks will be open to the public and double as the team’s practice facility. With an additional two rinks downtown, the Sabres also see this as an opportunity to lure national and international hockey tournaments.
Buffalo drew more than 330,000 fans to the 11-day 2011 World Junior hockey championship, making it the second-best attended tournament. The Sabres also hosted the 2003 NCAA Frozen Four.
Canisius College, whose hockey team plays at a rink off campus, is also in negotiations with the Sabres to relocate to the downtown facility.
Canisius athletic director Bill Maher is impressed with what Pegula has accomplished in such a short time.
“Terry came in and created a tremendous amount of excitement when he purchased the Sabres. And he’s backed that excitement up with action,” Maher said. “Buffalo has always been searching for a silver bullet, and I think there’s any one silver bullet. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication. I think that’s one of the things that Terry Pegula’s done.”