Q & A
Larry Quinn,
Buffalo Sabres managing partner and vice chairman,
Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.

By Christopher Schobert, photos by kc kratt

Larry Quinn
Larry Quinn has one of the most recognizable names and faces in Western New York, as managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres and vice chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. He also inspires as much opinion, pro and con, as any nonelected official this side of Carl Paladino. But Quinn has reason to be very satisfied. The Sabres are ready to start a new season without the seismic quakes of last summer, and a solid core of young stars and a few vets. And the Canal Side development plan is finally coming alive, with the waterfront site now open to the public. On both topics, Quinn speaks with an honesty that is refreshing; you might not agree with him, but you’ve got to admire his candor.

Are you pleased with the recent Canal Side success?
We have a long way to go there. I think it’s great that we’ve had some initial success, but as I said at the press conference, we’re only ten percent of the way there. We can’t congratulate ourselves because we haven’t accomplished what we need to accomplish.

What is the next need there?
We have to complete the public vision, which is to extend the canals through the property, which will then create value for private investment. The private investments are there right now, and we have to make the public improvements that are necessary. And those two things will cause this to be the center of the region within the next two years if we’re successful in completing them. Right now, you’ve got a very nice canal and a very nice boardwalk, but no place to buy an ice cream cone. And so what you’ve got to do is have a lot of commercial people activity that make it an interesting place, and that’s our challenge.

Do you see this area as a place for some nonprofit places as well? Museums or galleries, perhaps?
Yeah, I think that could, and I think the architectural vision for the site is for multilevel use, and a lot of the kinds of uses you suggest would be great for second-story uses.

Why do you think this area has the potential to be such a key site for this region?
I think people in today’s world are attracted to interesting places. And when you go around the country, let’s face it, a lot of suburban America is completely homogenized. So if you go to Houston suburb or a suburb in New York City they’re not any different. And Manhattan is very different from Boston, and Boston is very different from Buffalo. But the suburbs of those three cities are all the same. So what’s happened to America, I believe, is we’ve homogenized our experiences in life. We’ve homogenized and separated ourselves from each other with automobiles and cell phones and computers, and we’ve lost those places where people actually interact with people. And even in our city, we’ve become very suburbanized in that we’re always in cars, we’re always in parking garages. I really do believe the waterfront creates one of those rare opportunities where you can create a place where people can interact on a pedestrian level. People around the country go to a place like Boston because they have Boston Common, Faneuil Hall Market Place, Newbury Street. New York is probably the capital of that kind of experience. Chicago has Michigan Avenue and the north side. Conversely, there are a lot of cities that don’t have those types of places. And so Buffalo can differentiate itself in a real meaningful way if it can accomplish that. So what we’ve been trying to do is not create a project but a place, and if we can be successful in that, I think people don’t have a clue as to how exciting it’s going to be.

Is your involvement with the canal something you anticipated upon coming to Buffalo, or was it more of an unexpected opportunity?
Neither of those things happened. I was basically recruited by Mindy Rich and then further recruited by Brian Higgins, and then they encouraged—encouraged is actually a soft word; they coerced [laughs] me—into helping out, and I’m glad they have. It’s been a great experience.

You deal a lot with politicians/government. Is this something that creates more obstacles, or that comes with the territory?
The political world is one in which you have to be responsive to the general population’s agenda, issues, wants, and needs on a daily basis. And if you aren’t, you won’t last in that business very long. That’s kind of the antithesis of these kinds of projects—there is not a constituency for doing the waterfront right, but there’ll be a huge constituency for experiencing the waterfront. So what you’ve got to do is respect the fact that the political person has those primary obligations to the people that elected them. At the same time, it requires politicians with foresight—Brian Higgins is one. Byron Brown has shown great support to the waterfront, and Chris Collins is new to the job but seems ready to do that. So it’s not hard or difficult or frustrating—any project is. There are lots of things on the private sector side that are hard also. But if you can understand where people are coming from and what they need out of the project, and try to not lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish but make room for people, you can get it done.

Who do you look at in this city as someone who impresses you and makes a real impact?
I’d put Tom Golisano at the top of that list. There’s Brian Higgins. Our chairman Jordan Levy puts a lot of time and energy into the project. Mindy Rich has been incredible in terms of her commitment. I think outside of that, I see the people at the foundations as a major force—Oishei and Wendt. It’s funny, in Buffalo the professional athletes are really an important group of people in terms of making it a community. Most of them seem very committed to charities, children, making the community better—both the Bills and Sabres. There are places you look for more leadership. The academic world is maybe disconnected from the community, and yet John Simpson seems to be trying to bridge that disconnection. I know Canisius College has done a wonderful job of becoming involved. As we go forward, these institutions will probably take on a greater role. I think you see it already with UB’s leadership with the medical campus.

You grew up here, but lived in New York City from 1982–92 before returning. Do you see things now that you think are being done better today than they were in the past?
I’d say some things are worse. I don’t think the business community is as well-organized as it was before I left. It seems to not be as relevant to the processes of rebuilding the city as it once was. I think the process in the state of New York is infinitely more difficult than it was; it’s become so cumbersome. Back when I used to be involved under Jimmy Griffin the old UDC (Urban Development Corporation) was a pretty effective organization and got a lot done. I can’t say the same right now. I think Bob Wilmers taking on the assignment is important. But I think what’s different is that rebuilding the city is not something that’s done by a simple action. It’s an accumulation of things, and I think we are starting to see the results of twenty years of doing a lot, and it’s now reaching a critical mass. Building the Hyatt and the Gold Dome Bank building led to a revitalization of Chippewa; Chippewa tied in with the theater district; and now, the waterfront. You’re starting to see results. There was a time when we saw nothing being done. Now there’s New Era moving downtown, Health Now, HSBC staying involved in the community, the growth of M&T—those are all things that are new from when I was previously here.

Do you feel like you wear two separate hats between the Sabres and city affairs?
I think what I’ve been lucky with is that Tom Golisano has given me the encouragement to do things in public service, so it’s really less about the Sabres and more about Tom, and his view of how you do things. He’s enabled me to do this. So they’re really completely unrelated, except that I wouldn’t be able to do them if I didn’t have a partner who really supported and encouraged it.

There was great news for the team this summer: you locked up Ryan Miller to a long-term deal. Is this something you have time to enjoy for a bit, or do you move right onto the next task?
I do enjoy it, but it’s more of a signal that things are starting to work. It’s a commitment to do a lot of work in the future, so you’re not celebrating, but you certainly enjoy it. When you have a player who is set to become unrestricted, the player has a lot of say. The money has to be there, but I think what’s critical is that they buy into your vision of where you’re heading. There are a lot of players out there who have been offered money by their teams and have not stayed, and one reason for that is they don’t share the vision of where that team is going.

Ryan’s role on the team seems more significant than just a goalie. At times he seems to really relish a captain-like leadership role. Is this something you want to see from him?
I think that’s a little unfair to Ryan, because what we really want him to be is the goaltender. If he does that, his leadership will come through. Last year maybe he experimented with the other role, but I think right now both he and us want to focus on his playing as a goaltender, and stopping pucks, which doesn’t take away from any of the charitable or public works that he does. But I think the primary focus is to put him in a position where he can be a successful goalie.

Tell me your thoughts on the off-season.
We saw this team during the lockout win the American Hockey League, and that was significant. During the period there were a lot of players that would normally be in the NHL on this team, and we finished first overall. We’ve always viewed the coming of age of this team as a really good opportunity for us to do some damage. Most of the elements of that team are locked up now. Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller, Paul Gaustad, Dan Paille—they’re all set. So it’s been a great off-season, coupled with the fact that we think we had a very good draft and we were also able to sign some of our prospects from pervious drafts, like Nathan Gerbe and Tim Kennedy. We’re really excited about starting the new relationship with Portland, and the people that own the team there. We think very highly of them, and the city. But you never really know what you’re going to be like in the AHL, you don’t know who is going to make our team. We have a lot of optimism about it, but we’re so far from what that team is going to look like right now; we have work to do there. The day we were there and announced our affiliation was very well-received.

Can you compare Buffalo’s off-season with the rest of the NHL? Salaries post-lockout have certainly gone up dramatically.
I think the escalation of salaries in the group two category has been something that wasn’t anticipated by anybody. So in that sense, you’ve had a huge jump. But we’re living with it now. I say to people all the time that we were the best team coming out of the lockout—or one of the best—and we were young. So we experience the full brunt of some of the new strategies two years ago, and now everybody else is feeling those now. Good teams are losing players, good teams can’t afford certain players. So throughout the league you’re seeing certain teams experiencing what we experienced last summer. We did not go through that this year, so we’re hoping that will be to our advantage.

Do you have concerns about the league’s post-lockout future?
No, I think the league is going to prosper and grow, and no matter what agreements you put in place, you’re going to have challenges in that agreement. There will be things that come up that are going to push you to try to overcome them. The reality of it is, the Buffalo Sabres have been profitable for the last four years. We’ve had great success on the ice, an incredible response from fans, so you can look at some of the challenges, but on the whole if you’re really looking closely, where we are is terrific, and I think that’s reflective of the entire National Hockey League as well.

What’s your outlook on this season?
I think we’ve put together a team that right now you can see having a four- or five-year serious run at a championship. You can’t predict too far ahead—one year you can get lightning in a bottle. This year feels for me a lot like 2005–06, in which nobody expected much out us and we ended up near the end being one of the best teams, and should have won the cup. This team feels like that. We’ll see—injuries play a part, and what other teams do plays a big part. I think getting Craig Rivet and a healthy Tim Connolly is important. So I’m pretty excited.

Do you feel you need to keep room on the roster for young players to come in?
Young players have to make their own room. I’ve observed teams over the years who load up with free agents and then have no opportunity for their young players to grow and develop, and those teams suffer. But the young players that we draft and develop, it’s their job to force a role; we don’t make room for them. They make the room, and I fully expect this group, that will be in Portland initially, and that was in Rochester before, will play so well that we’ll have to have them.

In working for the Sabres, and in your waterfront dealings, you have to deal a lot with rumor and hearsay. Does that bother you? It doesn’t get to me, and it does come with the territory. But you have to find a way to not let those influence your agenda or what you do. Sometimes when you are tired and you’ve had a long day you can tune it out. Other times you’ll just be polite and answer the question. But you can’t be driven by the agenda of the masses, because what the general fanbase or people in Buffalo really want you to do is get results. And their questions about players or what to do on the waterfront is reflective of their enthusiasm, so you respect that. But they don’t expect you to try to be responsive in a democratic way—they want you to do a good job. And we try to do that here.

Christopher Schobert is associate editor of Buffalo Spree.


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