Owners of the former Buffalo Forge plant on Broadway are working with Green/Gold Development Corp., headed by Common Council President James W. Pitts, in preliminary moves to create an environmental industrial park in the vacant 14-acre site.
The park would become an East Side incubator and site for so-called "green" businesses, providing environmental services or products, with the aim of creating a new economic development niche for Buffalo.
Green/Gold, a committee made up of representatives from local government and private companies, would look to develop an environmentally friendly park where tenants recycle waste from each other. For example, materials one company considers waste may be raw materials for the manufacturing process of another tenant.
"We have a tremendous opportunity," Pitts said. "We have good people who are committed."
Howden Buffalo Inc. owns the block and the buildings where Buffalo Forge opened in 1874 as a blacksmith supplier and grew to provide air-handling equipment to industries worldwide.
"We felt badly when there was talk of tearing the buildings down," said Robert E. Pfeil, Howden manager of human resources. "This is a very good site. We are happy to turn it over to the city in good shape."
Several former city industrial sites, such as the Larkin Co. facility at 701 Seneca St. and the Trico plant on Main Street, have been resurrected as multitenant facilities, but not without significant expense. That cost can threaten business plans.
Renovation work at Buffalo Forge could be so expensive that the building operators would have trouble keeping rents low enough for start-up businesses and other tenants, said Alan Dewart, a principal in the Seneca Industrial Center.
"The change of use being described and the extent of renovations would trigger bringing the building into compliance with current New York state building codes and that, in our experience, is very expensive," Dewart said.
Seneca Industrial Complex, a former Larkin Co. facility at 701 Seneca St., has about 75 percent of its 930,000 square feet of available space occupied.
Dewart said the Buffalo Forge project would probably need significant government subsidies to be economically viable, even if the new owners acquire the property for a dollar.
The Erie County Industrial Development Agency has agreed to help Green/Gold study the financial and environmental aspects of the project, executive director Ronald W. Coan said.
"We'll be working with the Green/Gold committee to evaluate the Buffalo Forge site as a potential environmentally friendly industrial park," Coan said. "If the project does have feasibility, we could certainly be a partner in the execution."
A proud history
Thousands of Buffalo residents worked over the years in the Buffalo Forge plant, now a part of the Pratt-Willert redevelopment home zone, where 100 new houses have been built but jobs are hard to come by.
Fred Heimle, housing project manager in the city's Office of Strategic Planning, said the plant was too big to tear down, and planners, as they phased in new homes, were stymied at what to do with Buffalo Forge. Heimle and others jumped on board when Pitts approached with the Green/Gold proposal.
"It's something we should have looked at with our old commercial buildings a long time ago," said David Sengbusch, city director of economic development.
But many industrial renovation projects simply do not make financial sense because of the cost of new stairwells, elevators, windows and mechanical systems, Dewart said. When confronted with the options, most developers would rather build a new industrial park from scratch, he said.
"New, pre-engineered steel industrial buildings are tremendously efficient to operate compared with renovating an old facility," Dewart said.
As the Buffalo Forge complex stands today, it offers the potential for 500,000 square feet of space for manufacturing, assembling, warehousing and trucking. The several structures occupy an area that stretches to Sycamore Street, between Spring and Mortimer streets.
Bonnie Foit-Albert, a local architect hired to do preliminary sketches for the project, said using such a large industrial site, close to downtown and major corridors, would provide potential jobs for residents within walking distance as well as opportunities for business to flourish.
"You can't get a better location than this," she said.
Foit-Albert said the architects drew on three prior renovations of factory buildings: Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco, Union Square in St. Louis and Butler Square in Minneapolis.
Private sector support
Bill Nowak, Common Council senior legislative assistant, said the building's first tenants could be a cluster of businesses working together to succeed. Within the park they would share such facilities as computer rooms, conference areas, library, laboratory and employee day care.
One possible tenant is Solar Water Systems, a start-up company and Green/Gold member that plans to make and market solar-powered potable water systems, with Buffalo as its production base and the Mid-East as potential market.
Gary Robinson, the Buffalo-area management director of URS Corp., is a Green/Gold board member and a partner in Solar Water Systems with David Barnhardt, developer of the solar-powered desalinization system. He likes the idea of an environmental business campus in a neighborhood where potential employees might walk to work.
"You have in the Erie County/Buffalo area an underutilized labor force and manufacturing capability," said Robinson.
Pitts, hoping to see jobs created for a new generation of Buffalonians, recalled hearing of the attempts made by the owners of Buffalo Forge, the Wendt family, to keep their workers employed during the Depression.
"We have a tremendous opportunity here today to turn a former industrial property into a new entrepreneurial opportunity," he said.
Groups across the country are working on similar ecobusiness centers, said Louis P. Zicari Jr., associate director of the Center for Integrated Waste Manage at the University at Buffalo. He has visited a dozen such projects in the making.
The advantages are obvious, he noted, but success may hinge on getting the private sector to support the idea.
"The concept is very attractive in terms of being good for the environment and economy," he said. "I would hope they would get the private sector potential tenants involved."