Bashar Issa, the British developer who burst onto the local development scene last year with wildly ambitious plans to reinvent the Statler Hilton and erect Buffalo's tallest office building, will step into the public spotlight today.
Nearly 500 people, including real estate and development professionals, downtown advocates and the just plain curious, are expected to attend his noontime speech in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.
The 28-year-old entrepreneur from Manchester, England, admits he's "mystified" by the interest in him and his projects.
"This is all very unexpected. I imagined it would be a much smaller audience," Issa said. "I hope I can convey how excited I am to play a role in the rebirth of Buffalo. Every time I return, I'm more convinced I've made a great decision to invest here."
And he insists he will invest more than a half-billion dollars -- if his projects are completed as proposed.
The updated price tag to bring the faded Statler back to life as a residential/office/hotel complex has ballooned from an initial $80 million to more than $130 million.
The 40-story, 1.2 million-square-foot tower he has proposed for the corner of South Elmwood Avenue and West Mohawk Street, will cost $361 million.
The prospect of an out-of-towner plunking down so much of his own money in a city that has long craved development dollars has Issa watchers expressing a mix of enthusiasm, hope and skepticism.
"He's intriguing. People are trying to figure him out," said real estate broker Carolyn Murray of Working for Downtown, which sponsors the monthly Buffalo Talks series, the forum for Issa's appearance.
"He's kind of a development rock star," she added. "People want to get in the room with him and see if he's for real."
But according to David Thame, a business reporter for the Manchester Evening News and contributor to the Estates Gazette, the jury is still out on Issa's ability to deliver a successful development. In Manchester, Issa has started several ambitious projects but failed to finish any.
"So far, he has big ideas, big vision, but no completed projects," Thame said. "It's unfair to criticize people for having dreams and ambitions, but he's yet to establish a track record."
Thomas J. Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise, said his development agency has checked Issa's credentials and sees no reason for doubt.
"We've done our due diligence on his dossier and portfolio in England, and we've spent time with him. He exhibits a track record and level of honesty that makes me believe he is for real," Kucharski said.
But Kucharski acknowledged that Buffalo has seen more than its fair share of out-of-town, white-knight developers who make promises and never follow through.
Richard Tobe, Buffalo's economic development chief, said the city has had no reason to "second or third guess" Issa's plans.
"You have to start with what's on the table. He purchased a building with his own money. He's spent a considerable amount on architectural services and he's filed plans," Tobe said. "He hasn't asked for anything beyond normal approvals and permits. We have no reason for caution or concern."
In addition to the $3.5 million Issa paid for the Statler last August, he has signed a contract for $1.5 million in elevator upgrades and paid hefty fees to Silvestri Architects, Cannon Design and other professional planners to set his projects in motion.
With preliminary city approvals in hand, Issa said physical changes to the Statler will start in earnest this year, with a completion target in late 2009. In addition to a top-to-bottom interior makeover, a 10-story parking deck will be built on top of an existing three-floor section off the rear of the building, along Pearl Street.
On a smaller scale, Issa has updated a former Statler hotel room into a master suite, where he resides when in Buffalo.
"It's kind of cool to be the only one here in the middle of the night," he said. "It's my Buffalo home."
The timetable for the new tower extends to 2011, with earlier emphasis on marketing the building to businesses in Toronto, New York, Chicago and elsewhere as a high-quality, less-expensive alternative for expansion. Issa has set a prelease threshold of 40 percent before construction begins.
Issa and his Manchester-based BSC Group are not shy when it comes to big projects with eye-popping price tags. The firm currently has $1.07 billion (U.S.) worth of projects either under construction or in development in England.
Issa's grand plans have drawn criticism from bloggers on the Web site skyscrapercity.com over the past several months. One forum has attracted a long thread of posts regarding Issa's proposed multistructure development known as Canopus Towers, on the edge of Manchester's city center.
Originally proposed as a 67-story tower, which would have been Manchester's tallest building, it has been redesigned as a 40-floor mixed-use tower, flanked by a cluster of smaller structures. The $356 million (U.S.) blueprint includes ultra-high-end residences and a five-star hotel.
There are several references to a large hole the developer dug at the site last fall, along with photo updates that show little progress.
"Bashar Issa seems to be a master of PR but less adept at getting projects in the ground," read one comment.
Several others raise questions about the slow pace of progress at all of BSC's projects.
Issa's current project list in Manchester includes three other big-ticket endeavors. Issa Quay, a $36 million (U.S.) apartment development, will debut this summer. Sarah Point, a 151-unit apartment and hotel complex, spread over one 15-story and two six-story buildings, is in the beginning stages of construction. It should be complete in mid-2009.
Site preparation also is under way on Sarah Tower, a $70 million 23-story tower, with two levels of underground parking. Issa's plans for the tower date back to 2000, but difficulties at the site, which is bordered by a canal on one side and heavily trafficked streets on two others, have led to delays and design changes.
"The scope of these projects and locations make them complex. I realize a lot of people are looking at me and charting the progress. Ultimately, there will be no question about the quality and success of these developments," Issa said.