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Farming by commuting Social entrepreneuring would transport workers to the fields and back

If a local businessman's dream takes root, the region's economic landscape may soon find a growth industry in farming.

Imagine unemployed city residents catching a ride every morning to Wyoming County, where they would spend the day working the farm, and then returning home in the evening. The bounty of their labors would fill local grocery shelves with fresh produce and livestock products that are now often trucked in from thousands of miles away.

Such a scenario would eliminate part of the delivery cost figured into the price of the food and take a bite out of the pollution spewed from over-the-road transportation.

Paul L. Snyder III, whose family is a major force in the local hospitality industry, already has the transportation piece of the puzzle figured out for this new breed of farmer and is acquiring large tracts of farmland.

He's plowing a bigger piece of the profits back into his recently acquired fleet of "We Care" vans and buses, creating jobs in an urban setting that almost became another brownfield.

Providing rides for the poor to medical checkups and other essential services is only one of the benefits of what Snyder calls social entrepreneurship -- which relies on a tripod of cooperation involving private enterprise, work force development and community collaborators.

The goal is collective, localized self-help, patterned after an international movement to give individuals at the bottom of the economic strata a chance to have meaningful work through a more caring form of capitalism, whether it be driving buses or planting crops.

Snyder reflects a growing number of social entrepreneurs interested in hybrid enterprises that seek to do good and make money at the same time, mixing "profit and charitable motives," according to Alan J. Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.

"We thought, 'What if you could marry the skills of private business to the social mission of a nonprofit organization?' " Snyder said in explaining what had propelled him to a federal bankruptcy proceeding two years ago.

He bought We Care, an East Side transportation company that provided rides to some of the region's most vulnerable -- the disabled, senior citizens and children -- but that had fallen on hard times because of poor management, lack of capital and skyrocketing fuel and insurance costs.

That night, Snyder and his partner, Tom Ayers, left the courthouse and drove to the 400 block of East Amherst Street to see what they had gotten themselves into: razor-wired fences, run-down buildings, vacant fields and a fleet of vehicles in need of care.

Two years and several million dollars later, a new vehicle maintenance garage and administration building are up and running, and the fence has been replaced with open landscaping that blends into the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Besides preserving about 200 jobs for local residents, many of whom walk to work, a Center for Transportation Excellence was opened with 30 additional workers who help create jobs and provide more-efficient use of the community's limited transportation resources.

Future mechanics, drivers and bus aides receive training for jobs at the center's facility, and the training is not only for prospective We Care employees, but for other nonprofit and for-profit companies and organizations.

There's also a call center at the transportation center where workers perform "mobility management," using computer software to make sure van and bus routes have a maximum number of riders.

The cost of this service is paid, in part, through a federal grant. So it generates money for the center and reduces the number of vehicles driving around with empty seats.

The center also has submitted a proposal to Erie County with the hope of managing the transportation needs of the county's Medicaid recipients. And the center's maintenance garage services vehicles from other transportation companies in addition to We Care's fleet.

All of this has helped infuse cash and a sense vibrancy into the Center for Transportation Excellence, which is on the road to financial stability.

Helping guide the center is a 23-member board of advisers, with a heavy representation of officials from the health and human services sector.

"Many organizations serving seniors may not know the leaders of organizations serving children, and they may not know organizations [that] understand the challenges of serving individuals with disabilities. This gives people an opportunity in their own silos to come together," said Virginia C. Oehler, advisory board chairwoman.

Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples, D-Buffalo, says she is convinced that Snyder is making improvements in this portion of the transportation industry.

"He really got all of the agencies that provide transportation services together, and that created a synergy," Peoples said. "You do get better drivers because they get better training and a more fair wage."

She also commended Snyder's altruistic spirit.

"He feels and cares about people," the assemblywoman said. "On the East Side of Buffalo, most people with Paul Snyder's potential won't go there."

Snyder says he is not looking to take a bow and hopes to recoup a multimillion-dollar investment. But he says the bigger payoff will be if other local businesses embark on social entrepreneurship.

Which brings him around to his next endeavor: the idea that, with factory employment eroding, local prosperity can be sown in a future of agriculture.

Snyder, whose company owns Wyoming County's Beaver Hollow Conference Center, envisions vehicles coordinated by the transportation center driving city-based farmers to that county's open lands.

"They would apprentice and own or operate farms that would be linked to a central farm, which would provide the equipment and other supplies," Snyder said. "We've engaged several organizations in agricultural research and planning to establish a Center for Agricultural Excellence."

But he cannot do this alone. He is appealing to all segments of the Buffalo Niagara community to become involved in an enterprise that could end up filling the gap left by the shrinking manufacturing sector.

"I believe passionately that our community has the people and the resources and ideas to create solutions to many of our challenges," Snyder said. "We're past the point where we can continue to look to someone outside to solve our problems."


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