Bob Richardson has seen a lot of changes in Buffalo since he first came to Western New York for M&T Bank Corp.'s management development program.
In particular, he's seen explosive growth in commercial real estate development in recent years, the rise of new sources of investment capital for those projects and the economic resurgence that is driving activity in Buffalo.
But he knows that could still be tenuous, especially if the local population doesn't grow. So now he wants to make sure those changes will stick and that the development industry he now represents will continue to play an active role in Buffalo's future.
To do that, the new president of the Upstate New York chapter of NAIOP wants the commercial real estate development association to become much more active in studying the community and the marketplace, understanding what it needs to maintain momentum and advocating to achieve those goals. That will take some dexterity, as he must work within the interests of not only Buffalo developers, but those in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, as well.
The California native, who went to college in Syracuse, spent 12 years at M&T, before broadening his experience by managing a national retail consulting firm based in Walmart's hometown of Bentonville, Ark. He returned to upstate New York seven years ago as chief operating officer of a statewide organization that coordinates foreign investment in U.S. real estate projects, through the EB-5 visa program.
More recently, he teamed up a year ago with former Evans Bancorp Chief Financial Officer Gary Kajtoch to form New Buffalo Capital, an independent commercial real estate private equity and investment banking firm that launched last April. The firm has been raising money to invest in local projects and expects to announce its first stakes early this year – even as Richardson also takes on the volunteer role at NAIOP.
Buffalo News: What is your role at NAIOP?
Bob Richardson: Our organization is focused on representing the commercial real estate industry and advocating for the kinds of things that we think help communities grow and develop.
We’re also very involved in gathering and analyzing data and market conditions, market intelligence, really understanding the kinds of things that communities where we operate need to grow, flourish and attract businesses and residents. That data helps us understand how we serve our community.
You’ve been in business for a while. What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities facing Western New York?
I and really our industry are very excited and optimistic about the things we see happening in Western New York. We feel like the momentum has shifted and turned in a positive direction, and frankly, our industry has been at the forefront of investing in the renaissance of Buffalo and Western New York. Having made those big investments, and really bet on Buffalo, we have a vested interest in seeing it continue and really advance to the point where Buffalo is competitive nationally and globally.
This is really the beginning of that long-term process. We’d like to play a role in having the community conversation about what kind of city we are and how we build the kinds of projects and residences, and the types of offices and attractions, that make us a city where people want to live and move to and compete globally.
How is Buffalo doing compared to other parts of upstate?
Buffalo is really outpacing the rest of upstate from a real estate perspective, and a growth-and-opportunity perspective. I think we have an opportunity here to create a model for other upstate cities in the upstate market in terms of what it takes to create a resurgence on a local level and have it last, have it transition beyond the point where it’s government induced, to the point where it’s led and funded by the private sector.
What role will NAIOP play?
One of the things that our industry has not had to do in the past is really gather detailed information about the market conditions and really study the market at the granular level, so we understand what is happening and does happen when certain development takes place.
We can take those lessons to other cities in upstate and help them organize the same kind of effort and achieve the same kind of results.
Why haven’t you done that in the past?
There wasn’t the growth; there wasn’t the activity on the real estate side. There were isolated projects here and there that were funded locally to meet a local need.
One of the big transitions that we have to make in our mindset is that, where five years ago, we weren’t a nationally competitive real estate market, we are now. We’ve consumed a lot of our local and regional statewide resources to get to this point where we are now.
Our industry has made a tremendous investment in this resurgence. But this pace can’t continue on local capital or the local population
We have to compete nationally to attract capital. We have to compete nationally to attract population, and we’re competing with other cities that have well-thought-out, cohesive plans for how to do that. I don’t think we do yet, so organizing that conversation and engaging all parts of our community to participate in that is really important.
What are the threats to maintaining momentum?
It’s all of those cities nationally who have their own plans. It’s competition for capital, for resources.
And I think one of the things that I’m really encouraged about is when you look at the success and the activity that’s happening now in Buffalo is that we are attracting the next generation. What that tells me is we have a lot to offer. We have the kinds of things that the research tells us they want. We have a place of character, uniqueness and vibrancy. We have a combination of urban, suburban and natural environments that really is appealing to this next generation.
But we have to get organized and really go pursue these things. We can’t be focused on catching up with the others, because they’re continuing to move forward. We have to skip ahead and play in a totally different paradigm
You've mentioned concern about growing the local population and the need for real in-migration. What do you mean?
I fear that if we don’t continue to attract people to relocate to Buffalo, a lot of the gains that we’ve had are temporary. A lot of the employment gains right now are coming from construction and things happening in the banking industry that are probably more temporary.
We have to get people to move here, people with skills that can immediately impact the things that are happening on the medical campus, the new and emerging high-tech industries. We can’t grow that talent fast enough here. We have to convince those people with that talent to move here. When they move here, they create jobs for others and needs in our industry, in real estate and needs in financial services.
This is a competition, a war for talent, and we have to play with purpose in trying to bring those people here.
Where do local economic development, tourism and community stand on this?
Honestly, I’m not sure that we’ve had the conversation yet. We haven’t really thought about how all of those parts of our economy contribute to those metrics.
Frankly, we’re doing too much comparison to the way things were five years ago, and then feeling good about the progress we’ve made. But the comparison we need to make from this day forward is to other cities, globally and nationally, where we’re competing.
Story topics: sunday biz talk