Larry Quinn on Sabres, Canalside, HSBC

Self-portrait, Larry Quinn

To quote Frank Sinatra, Larry Quinn has “been up and down and over and out,” perhaps moreso than any public figure in Buffalo over the past generation.

He’s been a boy wonder city development whiz under Jimmy Griffin and a Manhattan developer. Managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres not once but twice and now involved in an effort to build an Irish Olympic hockey program. Hailed for building the downtown arena and later working with Tom Golisano to save the team from bankruptcy. Lambasted for the departures of Pat LaFontaine and Chris Drury. Lauded as a visionary planner and reviled for his advocacy of the Bass Pro project. And a survivor, barely, of open heart surgery in 2010.

Quinn, who turns 60 this month, has kept a low profile since stepping away from the Sabres and Canalside project a year ago. Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed him via e-mail last week. What follows is the first of two parts.

 It’s been a year since you and Tom Golisano sold the Sabres and you stepped down from the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. What have you been up to?

I’ve been primarily focused on getting physically and mentally healthy. I’ve been to Europe a few times, done a lot of reading, and am trying to learn to paint again after giving it up 40 years ago. I’ve also been helping a group in Ireland develop a national ice hockey team and am starting some projects with a national contractor. But. For the most part, I’ve been working on regaining my physical and spiritual strength.

An Irish hockey program? What’s that about?

I’m working with Paddy Power of Dublin to try and build an Irish men’s and women’s ice hockey team that is capable of competing in the Winter Olympics. I’ve spent time with them at the World Juniors in Edmonton and the Youth Olympics in Innsbruck. It’s a big task but interesting and well worth the effort.

Everybody in town is disappointed with the season the Sabres have had. What are you seeing from the outside looking in?

Mostly growing pains. I think they’ve learned the hard way that free agency isn’t the best approach for winning. After you pay the wrong people too much money, the team concept erodes a bit. Add an unprecedented amount injuries to the mix, you lose the time and space to grow into a real team.

They seem to be gelling now; it may or may not be too late for this year. It’s easy to see what a healthy Ryan Miller and Tyler Myers mean to this team and how devastating it was to essentially lose them for the first half of the season.

I think the early hubris is gone and they will settle into a very effective team. I think their future is very bright.

All this talk about the Sabres newfound commitment to winning since Terry Pegula bought the team has got to frost you.

It did initially. As far as winning, we did better than any single era of the Buffalo Sabres. During Tom’s ownership, we had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best record leaguewide. Our Presidents’ trophy, two division titles and consecutive conference finals were the envy of most teams in the league.

I kid Jay McKee all the time, but in reality we were a pair of his dirty socks from winning the Stanley Cup.

I wish the current management all the best, and I really believe Terry will find a way to win the big prize. I just didn’t understand why certain people want to slight our prior accomplishments along the way.

Webster block, prime development site

City Hall intends to issue a request for proposals for development of the Webster block, across from the hockey arena. Wasn’t that one of the parcels being eyed to keep HSBC in town? 

Yes, HSBC was looking at the Webster block, but if they need an expanded facility, there is large area behind their atrium building that can accommodate them.

I think the area leadership should not give up on HSBC. I admire few people more for what they’ve done for the community than Bob Wilmers and, lately, John Koemel. But unlike HSBC, M&T and First Niagara’s future as independently operated entities in WNY are not a certainty. If consolidation in the banking sector continues, as most experts predict, and as much as I hope it doesn’t happen, both M&T and First Niagara could cease to have a presence in WNY’s future.

Well, that doesn’t seem to bode well for keeping the bank and all those jobs here.

Although things look particularly bleak right now as far as HSBC is concerned, they are still the world’s second-largest bank. As such, they are not a merger or acquisition target and will therefore be around for a long time. Attention should be paid.

Unfortunately I think our political and business leadership is asleep at the switch as it concerns HSBC. Our senators, or other local leadership are not doing much of anything to help right now. There should be highly focused effort to convince HSBS to leave their national , mortgage, and IT jobs here before the die is cast.

You were irate after the demise of Bass Pro and the criticism of the development authority’s handling of the entire Canalside project. Are you viewing things any differently a year after leaving.

Fed-up would be a better description. I was tired and recovering from very serious heart surgery. I wish I had the energy to keep fighting then. I was most upset by the way the critics created the fairy tale that the project was nothing but a big box suburban store. Bass Pro was planned as an anchor to bring the million plus people to the site twelve months of the year that will drive the other stores, restaurants and hotels.

In truth we spent quite a bit of time trying to reinvent the big box idea and give it an urban scale that could fit into a uniquely urban place. It wasn’t easy, but we were on the verge of success. Bass Pro had made many design concessions and was prepared to build a store unlike anything before.

It was also the so-called “Bass Pro plan” that gave birth to the expanded, dredging of the Erie Canal and the development of a city multi-ethnic market, the children’s museum. The project was Canalside, not simply Bass Pro.

Put your planner’s hat back on for a moment. What would you like to see unfold at Canalside and how does that differ from the plans now in place? 

The current plan is too seasonal. It needs activity year round or the opportunity for real job creation will be lost. I would revisit the Bass Pro Plan make sure the other elements of the plan, namely the market, children’s museum, restaurants, full-service hotel and housing are aggressively pursued. These were all elements of the first plan that were often ignored by the media because of its Bass Pro fixation.

I also think it’s very important to think of Canalside as both sides of the river. Now that the New York Power Authority has acquired the old Ganzer property, there is a great opportunity to build a new city neighborhood along the river. The ECHDC should accelerate its planning to accommodate the development of a new neighborhood and marina on the Ganson parcel.

How long until we see something happening on the outer harbor?

I think there’s quite a lot already. Brian Higgins has done a lot to make it great recreational place. The recreational theme should be enhanced and developed.

I am very much against the Queen City Landing type developments. They should occur in the inner harbor and along the river so they can be integrated into the city infrastructure. Just take a look at Chicago if you need to get better sense of what a great waterfront recreational environment can do for a city.

What’s it going to take to move that off the dime?

Focus, planning, commitment and a non-political board.

Tomorrow: Quinn discusses what’s wrong with current economic development efforts, what he thinks of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $1 billion plan to revitalize the regional economy and how he would invest the money.

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