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Downtown developer Issa builds good will at public forum

A standing-room-only crowd gathered at midday Thursday in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo to size up British developer Bashar Issa and hear his plans for a rebirth of the Statler Towers and the construction of Buffalo's tallest building.

In his first big public forum since acquiring the faded former hotel last August and unveiling plans for a 40-story commercial tower downtown, Issa drew a crowd of more than 500.

"I want to shout, in a sense go crazy, to attract attention to the downtown core. I want to attract attention to Buffalo," he said in describing his more than $500 million in development plans.

Peggy Beardsley, Buffalo Place associate director, was among those who packed the Hyatt ballroom to hear Issa introduce himself and his downtown ideas.

"The prospect of someone like this, with big ideas and a track record, wanting to do projects in Buffalo is very, very exciting," Beardsley said. "He came across as genuinely interested in the buildings and the community."

Pat Whalen, an international trade expert, said he left the event feeling very hopeful.

"I liked what I had heard about his plans, but it helped to hear him explain the projects and give some insight into who he is. He's a breath of fresh air," Whalen said.

Issa opened by offering details of his personal and professional life, a story that stretches from the Middle East to Great Britain. He drew laughs when explaining how, as a college student, he progressed from buying and selling cars to make a little money, to earning enough from trading international currency futures to pay for his final years of college.

"After I called my parents to tell them they wouldn't have to pay tuition again, they got on the next flight to London to make sure I wasn't up to anything. After I showed them the evidence, my father said, 'Well done,' " he recalled.

By age 20, he was overseeing the rehab of family-owned properties in London, which led to setting up his own construction company and into property development. Now 28, Issa oversees a group of companies with more than $1.5 billion worth of projects either under construction or on the drawing board.

"I hope I conveyed who I am and how I do things," Issa said after his talk. "I tried to give them a starting place to understand what we want to accomplish. I appreciate their support."

Several in the crowd said they were impressed by Issa's reverence for the faded Statler Hilton, one of Buffalo's best-known and most-loved buildings.

"It seems everybody here has a story about the Statler," he said. "I want them to fall in love with it all over again."

That sentiment was especially touching for Eva Hassett, executive vice president of Savarino Companies, whose late father, William, owned and operated the Statler through the 1970s. Hassett, who spent much of her childhood at the once-grand hotel, said Issa's intentions are admirable.

"I was touched by the clear affection for the building. I'm extremely encouraged," she said.

Issa noted the complexity of renovating the Statler, a task that will cost a newly estimated $130 million, up from a preliminary projection of $80 million. He told his audience he will move cautiously and consistently on both the Statler and tower projects to insure quality outcomes.

"One of the responsibilities of a developer is to hold yourself back," he said, adding he is aiming for the highest quality and does not want to end up with "half-occupied buildings."

Under the current timetable, it will take at least 24 months to convert the building to a mix of residential, hotel and office uses.

While he has received preliminary approvals for the 40-story, 1.2 million-square-foot, new-build tower at South Elmwood Avenue and West Mohawk Street, the next step is development of a marketing campaign aimed at out-of-town tenants. Construction will not begin until 40 percent of the building is leased, and completion is not expected before 2011.


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