Fillmore Avenue is meant to be the gateway corridor into Martin Luther King Park on Buffalo's East Side. But creating that welcoming environment requires money – money to improve the tired-looking business district that flanks Fillmore Avenue between East Ferry and Northampton streets on the north side of the park.
To that end, more than a year ago the state allocated $300,000 to Community Action Organization to help finance facade improvements at small businesses and organizations along this corridor. So far, five businesses have used the money to improve signs, remove uninviting window bars and repair worn-out roofs, say CAO administrators.
Businesses receive a 3-to-1 matching grant for improvements to their properties, said Nathan Hare, CEO of Community Action Organization of Western New York.
"The business is happy, and we're happy, and the community is happy," Hare said.
It's important for both the local community and people driving through the area to recognize the MLK Business District as a distinct area leading into a park district, Hare said. For locals, it means providing a greater sense of identity and connection between the commercial strip and the residents who live around it.
Many signs and landmarks still pay tribute to the neighborhood's earlier German and Polish heritage, Hare said. Now that the community has more people with African and Arabic ethnicity, new signs should reflect that, he said.
Pamela James, coordinator of the Better Buffalo Fund, a component of the Buffalo Billion, said the five businesses and organizations received grants ranging from $50,000 to $75,000. That money is being invested in exterior renovations and new business signs.
A portion of the $300,000 grant is being allocated to "streetscape" improvements like the banners featuring iconic African-American leaders that went up on streetlight posts in the summer.
The businesses that received renovation 458/grants include Community Action Organization Rafi Green Masten Resource Center, Ansar Cellular and Fragrance, S&K Tire Shop, and the Utica-Fillmore Market at 1370 Fillmore. The tire shop's renovations are still ongoing, and Leslie's Boutique at 1474 Fillmore, a new business, is receiving a new sign. All signs will include the label "MLK Business District" as well as the name of the store, James said.
The sign unveiling for the business is taking place on Tuesday.
James and Hare said that the renovation work also is providing work to minority-owned business and residents of color wherever possible. James recalled a group of 10 young men who were hanging out around the businesses when renovation work was getting underway. The contractor was persuaded to hire them.
And, James said, "Some of them are still there."