Share this article

print logo

All in good faith; East Side church leaders take matters into their own hands when it comes to stimulating the economy and revitalizing the community

Donning his pastor's robe, the Rev. Michael Chapman looks ready to deliver a sermon to his congregation at St. John's Baptist Church.

But instead of commanding the pulpit, Chapman speaks as a big-time developer, detailing a multiyear, $500 million Fruit Belt comprehensive development project that is strategically intertwined with the city's burgeoning medical corridor.

"We have an opportunity to piggyback off that development and make sure that revenue is infused into the Fruit Belt and throughout the East Side of Buffalo," Chapman said. "You can't have a world-class medical center without a world-class community. So we're working hand-in-hand with the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus."

Construction will begin this summer on the church's $2.5 million supermarket with a cafe on High Street, across from the medical campus. It will offer prepared meals for campus workers, employ about 65 community residents and provide fresh food to a neighborhood without a full-service supermarket.

"We've got $234 million planned for High Street commercial development," Chapman said. "In the next five to seven years, we'll put 7,000 folks to work. We are creating our own jobs, our own economic system."

The East Side's persistent blight and poverty have forced Chapman and other ministers to transform into savvy businessmen.

Through autonomous development corporations, many East Side pastors are heading initiatives to stimulate the economy and revitalize the community.

"Compared to other areas, there hasn't been much done on the East Side," said the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, pastor of Bethel AME Church and CEO of its community development corporation, "but most of the development projects that have been done have been spearheaded by the black church."

To name a few:

*Greater Refuge Temple Development Corp.'s miniplaza -- the GRT Plaza -- on Jefferson Avenue.

*The Jefferson Marketplace, a business incubator with an M&T Bank branch and three minority-owned businesses.

*True Bethel Development Corp.'s Subway restaurant, located at the church on East Ferry Street.

"Who's the largest developer on the East Side of Buffalo? The church," said Bishop Michael Badger, pastor of Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street. "Our main mission is saving souls, but economic development is something we have to do because nobody else is doing it."

As the most viable and financially stable institution in the black community, the church's role has long been all-purpose -- from giving birth to the civil rights movement to present-day community development efforts, Stenhouse said.

"Most of things that have progressed or improved the black community for the most part have been pioneered or at least partnered in a great way by the church," he said.

Also, in the case of St. John and other larger churches, the area's black middle class comprise much of their memberships, creating a concentration of skills and wealth that can be tapped for the churches' development work, said Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies.

"The big churches remain highly capable because of that concentration of talent and resources," Taylor said. "Chapman's assembling an amazing level of talent that makes it all work. It's quite impressive."

African-American churches around the country have taken on community and economic development projects. In Harlem, the iconic Abyssinian Baptist Church tackled urban decay with various initiatives and ignited the community's touted economic rebirth.

>Little private help

Buffalo's black churches have spent more than $80 million on community and economic development projects during the past 10 years. Their efforts have helped improve the housing stock, created new jobs and greater access to goods and services. Four years ago, Bethesda World Harvest Church spent $1.7 million to buy and renovate a 17,000-square-foot building on Main and East Utica streets. A new Subway sandwich shop will open in one of the building's storefronts, and the remaining office space will be leased to entrepreneurs at below market rate.

"One of the things we'd like to do is help some business owners within the community get into a prime location and have an opportunity to do so at a reasonable price," Badger said.

This year will see the start and completion of numerous projects on the East Side -- from a $5 million, 48-unit town home development on East Ferry to a $10 million automotive training facility on Broadway -- most backed by faith-based organizations.

"If churches weren't involved, the East Side would be more of ghost town than it is now," said the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of the True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street and a City Council member. "There would be no large organization with the goal to make lives better."

Churches fund their efforts with money from their coffers, government grants and loans from financial institutions. But follow-up investment from the private sector has been largely missing. That absence has further hindered the community, thwarting any true economic rebound, the ministers said.

"The lack of economic development has meant a dire lack of goods and services, a lack of job creation," Stenhouse said. "And it's had a psychological effect -- that there's nothing here, it's a dead area. You have to leave here to get everything. Psychologically there's no pride."

Stenhouse and other pastors said the private sector hasn't built upon their efforts largely because of the community's widespread poverty.

"The East Side does not have the kind of discretionary income that would support the kind of businesses you see on Elmwood and Hertel," Stenhouse said. "Therefore a businessman looking to maximize his profits, thinks 'Should I put a store on Jefferson or should I put a store on Elmwood? The return on investment would be greater on Elmwood. So why would I put on a store on Jefferson?' "

>Large-scale investment

At St. John Baptist Church, religion and community development have long been linked. "It's our tradition, and I'm just continuing it," Chapman said.

Recent projects include $6.3 million spent for 28 new townhomes and seven single-family homes and a $2.8 million hospice. The church's development corporations also will break ground this year on a $16 million townhouse project and a $10 million, 60,000-square-foot automotive training facility that will be leased to Erie Community College.

The influential church, with 3,500 members, has 14 autonomous, nonprofit community development agencies, 2,200 staff members, consultants and volunteers.

"It's a comprehensive, collaborative urban development model," Chapman said. "There's nothing like it in the country, and it's right here in Buffalo."

Carl Calabrese, former Erie County deputy executive, and former Mayor Anthony Masiello are among its consultants who identify funding sources. Chapman also is working closely with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership for technical assistance, networking and training.

"The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus' ripple effects won't happen on their own. You have to have some interference," said Laura St. Pierre Smith, vice president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Smith said opportunities do exist on the East Side but they aren't readily available. For example, manufacturing companies desire acres of shovel-ready land, and the East Side vacant lots are too small and not contiguous.

Smaller lots are desired for retail, but retail follows rooftops, not just any rooftops, but rooftops with disposable income, Smith said.

Despite other developer's apprehension about poverty and high crime, Creative Structures Services built a Dollar General on Genesee and Fillmore last fall. The company is the general contractor of various East Side faith-based projects, including Second Chance Ministries' new housing development and True Bethel's town homes project, both on East Ferry Street.

David E. Pawlik, a partner in the CSS firm, said nonprofit groups, including church development corporations, make up 80 percent of the company's clientele.

"It's a market that we clearly saw was underappreciated," Pawlik said. "These are projects that we don't have to do. But you know what? You grew up in the area, and at the end of the day, it's not nice to turn your back."

Pawlik said CSS is profitable and other developers could be as well. The Dollar General "has done extremely well," and hasn't had problems with crime, he said. CSS recently sold the store to a Chicago-based company to get money for upcoming projects.

"This company looked at the demographics and felt this was a very great deal for them," Pawlik said. "This shows you have stability when you have a billon-dollar company coming in and making an acquisition like that."

The work CSS is doing with East Side nonprofits is laying a foundation that will eventually attract other businesses, Pawlik said.

"I think people like to invest where investing is, and we are the original investors," he said.

Pawlik believes the East Side could enjoy an economic renaissance comparable to Harlem's.

"Harlem had to start from somewhere, someone had to put their sights on and determine this is where development should be," he said.

>The Harlem model

The Rev. Calvin Butts Jr. was that someone who got things going. In the mid-1980s, as the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, he turned to his congregation of highly educated professionals to address Harlem's ills. The neighborhood was plagued with crime, drugs, failing schools and a drought of businesses, including a full-service supermarket.

"We have human resources in the congregation -- lawyers, accountants, educators, architects -- and we brought them in and began to talk about what we could do to redeem our community," said Butts, who is also president of SUNY Old Westbury.

The Abyssinian Development Corp., formed in 1989, first addressed housing, then the need for services, like a supermarket, and then schools. The corporation has invested more than $500 million in Harlem, building low-to-moderate income and market-rate housing, brought in a major supermarket and built the first new public high school in Harlem in 50 years.

Today Harlem is so desirable, it's grappling with gentrification issues. Businesses of all kinds have opened, strengthening the church's efforts.

"Harlem is safer and it's much more vibrant," Butts said. "Before we had only one drugstore, there are now many. We've got more restaurants, not just soul food restaurants, but all kinds. Magic Johnson opened a movie theater, and at one time, there was no movie house."

Harlem's transformation was started by the church, but came to fruition with the involvement and dedication of government and the private sector.

"Those three, working in concert, sit at the base of our success," Butts said.

The same would have to take place in Buffalo for church initiatives to have a lasting impact, Taylor said. Larger institutions, like the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and the Community Action Organization, along with Buffalo Promise also have embarked on development work that can change the direction of the community.

"The resurrection of the East Side is a possibility," Taylor said. "For the first time, we've got major development activity on all levels across the East Side. It's a great moment for the East Side."