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Rod Watson: Neighborhood development builds more than facades when done right

The new facades in the Fillmore Avenue business district can’t help but catch your eye as the area gets a facelift.

But what you may not see are some of the lives in the neighborhood that also have a chance for a makeover.

They are young men like 32-year-old Tyshawn Garner, who got hired temporarily last year by contractor Eddie Egriu as part of the $300,000 effort to redo storefronts and infrastructure along the East Side business strip.

In theory, that is how it is supposed to work: State money pumped into a neighborhood is supposed to offer opportunities for the residents there, not just for outsiders who swoop in, do the work and take the money back to their own communities.

When it works right, we find out that people like Garner – contrary to the stereotypes – really do want to work if given the chance.

He said he approached Egriu coming out of store one day and the contractor offered that chance, providing training while paying young men in the neighborhood $10 an hour as they learned on the job.

"When they see the payment, they treat it more like a job than some little training center," Egriu said, adding that "you’d be surprised at what folks can do."

Garner knew he wanted to do more after working as a cook for nine years.

He didn’t have a background in construction, but that proved no obstacle because of his attitude and because of Egriu's willingness to take a chance on the potential lying dormant in the neighborhood.

"If I don’t know it all, I’m willing to learn," Garner said.

He was among eight or nine neighborhood workers Egriu hired last summer, putting them through a three-month training course that taught them new skills as they worked.

"Anything basically hands-on," Garner said of the work he did while being trained. "We basically did a little bit of everything."

That included concrete work as well as work on windows, kitchens and bathrooms.

"Fixing up the East Side; storefronts, windows, anything you can name, he was teaching us," he said of Egriu.

It is not exactly a fairy-tale ending. Egriu's crew soon moved to a job in Niagara Falls, and most of the young men he hired from the Fillmore Avenue neighborhood – including Garner – had no way of getting up there.

Construction work also slows down in the winter.

Still, it’s a template for making economic development work in practice the way it is promised in theory. In this case, the $300,000 the Community Action Organization of Erie County received from the Buffalo Billion’s Better Buffalo Fund facilitated not only facade improvement, but paychecks for area residents.

Egriu praised the young men he hired, emphasizing he let them go because of the lack of winter work, not any shortcomings on their part, adding that "anybody they apply to would keep them."

He wants both the public and other contractors to know that neighborhood residents make good workers if treated with the respect that everyone deserves - something that doesn’t always happen on construction sites.

How high is Egriu on the young men in the neighborhood? He plans to start another three-month paid training program when the weather breaks in the spring. Why? Because they "really deserve an opportunity."

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