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The Buffalo News (New York)

Not only is veteran City Hall figure Steven M. Casey joining developer Scott R. Congel's effort to redevelop the old Seneca Mall into a regional megaproject, so is one of the nation's top designers of multi-purpose sports stadiums.

HKS Sports and Entertainment Inc., the Dallas-based architectural firm that planned National Football League stadiums in Dallas, Indianapolis and Minneapolis, has joined Congel's $700 million proposal for a complex of housing, offices, theaters, recreational facilities and parking on the mostly abandoned 55-acre site in West Seneca, Congel said Tuesday.

Combined with the recruitment of Casey - the deputy mayor of Buffalo - to the Congel team, the move significantly ramps up the Syracuse developer's already intense efforts to undertake one of the biggest private projects in area history. Congel announced Tuesday that Casey will become chief executive officer of the Seneca Place project in West Seneca after 10 years as a top aide to Mayor Byron W. Brown in City Hall and the State Senate.

Congel, whose family has built major malls, including Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga and Destiny USA in Syracuse, said the addition of HKS underscores his commitment to present a multi-purpose complex to the NFL should he pursue building a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills on land adjacent to the site. He also said he remains interested in the possibility of bidding for ownership of the team.

Even if the stadium concept never materializes, he emphasized HKS will remain committed to the Seneca Place proposal.

"What attracted me to HKS as it relates to Seneca Place is their expertise in larger, integrated projects," he said, pointing to the firm's experience in developing similar proposals featuring corporate offices, biomedical facilities and health care and hospitality attractions.

"They are one of the foremost sports architectural firms in the world," he said.

Congel emphasized that he has recruited HKS to concentrate primarily on his Seneca Place project, but the firm stands ready to complement the development with an adjacent stadium design that he says fits 21st century requirements for a facility devoted to far more than eight to 10 football games per year.

"They bring a great knowledge of sports to this," the developer said. "But they also bring in other business beyond NFL games. It's all about the other events."

HKS Principal John Hutchings told The Buffalo News on Tuesday that he is attracted to the Congel proposal because it replicates similar concepts behind his projects in Dallas, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and current discussions regarding a new stadium in Oakland.

"We've had higher attendance at the Cowboys stadium and Lucas Oil Stadium (in Indianapolis) than at the games," he said. "I see that as the purpose for what Scott has envisioned for this West Seneca area."

Hutchings called the multi-purpose stadium and complex concept the "major differentiator" in determining successful NFL proposals.

"It's hard to justify money for a stadium used only eight to 10 times per year," he said. "But if you have concerts, and moto-cross and basketball tournaments, you raise the bar. It creates a lot of dynamic for the folks of the NFL and of New York."

Hutchings said he is particularly intrigued by the Congel proposal because of its proximity to several major highways. Ease of ingress and egress, he said, presents the potential for a "stadium on steroids."

The HKS-designed facility in Indianapolis has hosted the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament and a Super Bowl, he noted, while its newest effort in Minneapolis also has been tapped for a Super Bowl.

G. Steven Pigeon, the local political figure now serving as lobbyist for the Congel project, also said another major sports development firm - Sports Facilities Advisory of Clearwater, Fla. - will now assist in planning for the ice rinks and other recreational aspects envisioned for Seneca Place. Pigeon said the company also is capable of managing such facilities.

Pigeon, a political associate of Casey dating to the early 1990s who recruited him to the Congel project, said the fate of any potential stadium proposal rests largely with the new owner of the Bills.

He noted that former Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano - with whom he has a close business and political relationship - has expressed interest in buying the Bills. At one time, Golisano and Congel also had explored a potential Bills partnership, but Golisano is now acting on his own.

Congel said Tuesday he also remains interested in buying the team.

Pigeon emphasized Tuesday he does not speak for Golisano, but said he believes the Rochester billionaire would "be open to the best site" should his bid for the Bills prove successful.

"Our goal is to play a productive role in keeping the Buffalo Bills in Western New York," Congel added. "We have the skill set to help with that."

The developer's plans have a long way to go before they can be realized. West Seneca officials fear the project's sheer size may overwhelm the town's ability to provide support services, and they note Congel's proposal for a similar project at the former Irondequoit Mall in suburban Rochester has languished for years.

Congel said Tuesday he remains more optimistic than ever about his newest proposal, however, and that he hopes ongoing negotiations with the town will produce an agreement all parties can live with in the near future.

Meanwhile, HKS is no stranger to the increasingly active business groups exploring the idea of a new stadium for the Bills. The firm already has designed the outer harbor proposal advanced by a group featuring Amherst businessman George F. Hasiotis.

Hutchings said Tuesday that his firm has "fulfilled our contractual obligation" to the Hasiotis group but that it remains in dialogue should the group want to continue.

"Eventually," he said, "a single site will prevail."

Hasiotis echoed that sentiment Tuesday, indicating he sees no conflict in the firm working for both interests.

"It's not unusual," he said, noting that designs are specific to different sites.

"Ultimately, their judgment will be called into play in terms of comparing the two sites," he said.

Pigeon said he plans to meet next week in New York with Irwin Raij, the Manhattan attorney retained by New York State to assist in the sale of the team following the March 25 death of longtime owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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