A unique partnership between a pair of Buffalo nonprofit organizations and a local real estate developer is providing new job opportunities and training for minority residents from the city’s East and West Side neighborhoods.
More than 30 workers from impoverished areas of the city have been working for months as laborers on one of the biggest redevelopment projects in the city – Savarino Companies’ $38 million conversion of the former F.N. Burt Co. warehouse at 500 Seneca St. into a mixed-use commercial and residential complex.
The workers all were unemployed and struggling to find jobs before they were tapped by PUSH Buffalo and the Outsourcing Center for a new employment initiative through which they have gained experience in demolition, lead abatement, painting, framing walls, and other basic construction skills. They’re earning nearly $15 an hour, or $600 per week, plus benefits. And they’re feeling better about their accomplishments.
“I didn’t know anything before I came here, and now I know a little bit,” said Daniel Colon, 26, who now is certified for lead abatement.
“It’s definitely a learning experience that PUSH has provided,” said 42-year-old Ricardo Gonzalez, a West Side resident who did both demolition and some special project work at 500 Seneca.
And the organizations and the developer, Sam Savarino, believe their “high-road economic development” model’s success shows it can be replicated and expanded to other projects throughout the area – especially those with government subsidies from either the state or the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
“Buffalo is booming, but there have been many questions about how our economic development dollars are being used and how much the community benefits,” said PUSH Buffalo Executive Director Aaron Bartley. “This is an example of how the game should work – developers working with the community, building wealth by creating living-wage jobs.”
Savarino is looking to see where he can use the workers next. “Our firm has benefited greatly from our labor relationship with PUSH,” Savarino said. “The employees we have utilized have been a credit to their industry and their craft.”
“These guys are very capable. It takes a little more time and patience, but it’s all the same,” said Brian Frost, a superintendent for Savarino. “I can’t say it’s been perfect, but I’ve never had any problems with the guys that I couldn’t take care of myself. We don’t have guys not showing up.”
The nonprofits are having discussions with other firms, such as TM Montante Development, Uniland Development Co. and commercial landscaper J.F. Krantz, about extending the relationship to their projects. “We have guys that are dependent on us to keep this going,” Bartley said.
Meanwhile, a new umbrella community coalition called Open Buffalo – co-founded by PUSH and three other organizations – is seeking to change government policies and practices to encourage more such partnerships. The effort is based on a highly successful model in Los Angeles.
Community activists and labor leaders have long argued that real estate developers and contractors need to do a better job of hiring low-income, minority and female workers, especially from the city’s struggling neighborhoods.
They say it’s particularly important when the projects receive tax breaks, grants, loans or other support from government agencies, since that means they are benefiting from taxpayer dollars. And it has grown as an issue as Buffalo undergoes a real estate development boom, with one major building after another targeted for renovation and reuse.
“If you’re taking public money, you have a responsibility. This is public money and public money has a public purpose,” Bartley said.
Many government-funded projects already include agreements that mandate certain levels of minority and female participation among both workers and contractors. But critics say those standards are not rigorous, and developers often say it’s hard to find qualified workers with the right skills.
That’s where the effort by PUSH and Outsourcing Center comes in, by getting minority residents into training and employing them to work at the construction sites. In essence, the nonprofits are supplying the workers for developers.
“Unfortunately, you look at most sites around the region in the middle of this boom that we’re in, and the levels of minority participation and people being hired locally are still very low,” Bartley said. “So we’re here to really provide some productive, solution-based models for what could be done better.”
PUSH, a “sustainable housing” organization that operates primarily on the West Side of the city, is working on $11 million of development on 22 different construction sites in a 20-block area. The nonprofit hired Savarino for more extensive work.
As part of the contract, PUSH imposed a local and “high-road” hiring requirement for four workers from the community, at a living wage. PUSH supplied the workers, using one of its smaller homes as the site to train and vet them. It also worked with the Center for Employment Opportunities to offer jobs for five prison parolees at a time.
After just a few months, Savarino liked the workers so much that he came back to PUSH to ask if they or others could work on 500 Seneca, where work was about to start. The effort started with three workers, then five, then seven, and ultimately reached 15.
On the other side of the city, Outsourcing Center has operated its own construction skills training program from its base at 1649 Fillmore Ave. The 8-year-old organization, run by founder and executive director Spencer Gaskin, has trained more than 350 workers and placed 62 percent of them in jobs, including 47 who worked on Rocco Termini’s Hotel @ the Lafayette project. The group teamed up with PUSH and provided another 10 workers to Savarino, ensuring that both sides of the city were represented.
Meanwhile, PUSH decided to formalize the program, and negotiated an agreement with Savarino for $14.77 an hour plus benefits, for a total value of about $21 per hour.
“It was important for us to find an employer that was willing to take a step and pay better. That’s not something every employer is willing to do,” Bartley said. “It takes that kind of wage to support a household and to convince someone that it’s worth sticking with, that this is a career and not a random job.”