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Genesee Gateway gets boost National Grid grant helps energize development project

As the project called Genesee Gateway transforms from prominent festering eyesore into reborn commercial space, National Grid is providing a financial boost.

The utility company Wednesday presented a $200,000 grant from its Main Street/Commercial District Revitalization Program. The Buffalo Urban Development Corp. applied for the grant on behalf of Genesee Gateway LLC, the company that is spearheading the project, and will act as the pass-through agency for the funds.

Douglas G. Swift, a partner with Genesee Gateway LLC, called the project one of the most complex he has worked on. It involves rehabilitating a string of nine dilapidated buildings in a highly visible spot, at Oak and Genesee streets. Commuters heading downtown from the Kensington Expressway have watched the properties decay for years. The current owners bought it last year.

Every bit of financial support for the project counts, Swift said.

"These type of tricky renovation projects don't come cheap, and in a normal real estate development world, they don't really make financial sense, in and of themselves," he said. "So they require a lot of participation from the public sector, from the private sector community and really the whole area."

Swift credited other supporters, such as the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, with providing financial help for the project, as well.

Dennis Elsenbeck, National Grid's regional executive director of energy solutions services in Western New York, said Genesee Gateway was a good match for a grant from its revitalization program.

"We need a good vision," he said of projects chosen for the funds. "It has to be somewhat distinct, those type of projects that have high potential but very difficult to garner a lot of investment in."

A project like Gateway has attracted the support of key business leaders, which makes it more "sustainable" and reduces National Grid's risk in making an investment, he said.

Swift said that before the renovations started, the dilapidated properties were "a marketer's challenge, if not nightmare. Up until recently, it was hard to imagine how anybody could inhabit some of that space."

But the rehabilitation has sparked some inquiries even without formal marketing, he said. "We're amazed at how much interest that this project has already generated, without really trying very hard."

"We've got several people that are serious lookers, but no one who has signed on the dotted line," Swift added. "But we are hopeful."

Genesee Gateway LLC expects the property will be ready for office and retail tenants to "build out" by early next year. It has chosen Hunt Commercial Real Estate to serve as the broker.

Peter Hunt of Hunt Commercial said he expects the property will attract tenants with a passion for downtown and a "fundamental commitment to something different."

The revitalized Genesee Gateway will benefit from its high-profile location, he said, gesturing to the traffic pouring by on neighboring Oak Street.

Pointing the other direction on Genesee, he noted the proximity to the Theater District and Chippewa Street.

"You're right here at the gateway to all the nightlife in town," Hunt said. "So I think there's going to be a coolness factor. And don't ever underestimate that factor."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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