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Developer aims to turn historic downtown building into 'premier event hall'

Paul Kolkmeyer has more than enough to keep him busy these days.

The owner of Priam Enterprises LLC is seeking to restart work this month on his long-planned conversion of the former Marine Trust building in downtown Buffalo into a mix of high-end apartments, offices and a banquet center. It's part of a three-building project that marked Kolkmeyer's first big effort in local real estate development.

The complex project had been suspended after the original financing fell through, creating a significant delay that disrupted banquet bookings and angered some customers. But this time around, Kolkmeyer is hoping his big initiative on lower Main Street goes more smoothly, as he seeks to get it done within 15 months.

He's particularly focused on getting that event center – dubbed The Admiral Room at the Marin – opened within two months, so he can start reserving the space again for upcoming weddings and parties.

Meanwhile, the developer is also starting to shift attention to a new project, involving conversion of a former Canisius College dorm into micro-apartments. And he completed the renovation of an aging parking ramp that is now serving downtown customers again – including for tenants of his trio of Main Street buildings.

"We've got enough on our plate," he said. "We're doing great. I can't complain. We're always looking for other opportunities, but we've got some things that we own that we're interested in just making improvements on."

Kolkmeyer's downtown projects represent the latest effort by developers to capitalize on the renewed activity along Main Street and at Canalside nearby. The convenience of Metro Rail, the growing interest in transit-oriented development and the gradual return of cars on Main are making the area a more attractive place to live, spurring a host of redevelopment projects up and down the street. Meanwhile, Canalside is luring more visitors and tourists to the waterfront area just two blocks away, bringing increased pedestrian and car traffic with it.

The Marin, located at 237 Main St. in Buffalo. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Additionally, Kolkmeyer's trio of downtown buildings are located directly across Seneca Street from One Seneca Tower, whose Washington, D.C.-based owner, Douglas Jemal, has started work on an ambitious $125 million project to redevelop the empty 38-story tower complex. When completed, that would bring a host of new apartments, retail stores and restaurants to the lower plaza level. Kolkmeyer's buildings are also adjacent to Coca-Cola Field, with views into the baseball stadium from the top levels.

The combination of factors is already proving beneficial for Kolkmeyer. The first of his three downtown buildings, the Glenny, is already completed and occupied, with new residents living in its apartments at 251 Main. But while the others were also supposed to be open by now, the renovations of the Marin and Roblin buildings next door remain largely unfinished.

That's because Kolkmeyer needed to arrange new funding for the combined $38 million project after the initial round fell through. He's now finalizing the details of the new financing package, which he expects to close within days, allowing the work to begin anew.

The overall plans include a combination of apartments and office space, in addition to the Admiral Room, which Kolkmeyer has touted as a central feature of the project.

Located in the majestic former bank lobby on the ground floor and on the second floor, the facility will feature bright airy windows, a long ballroom space and marble columns from its days as the Marine Trust main branch. It will include an onsite kitchen and event planner, and can handle groups ranging in size from 50 to 300, according to its website.

Kolkmeyer said he already has "a number of people that are on hold at this particular point" who want to reserve the space for events in 2018 and 2019.

"We just need to go through some hoops and finish the banquet hall," he said. "We should be able to get that done shortly."

Kolkmeyer acknowledges he may have to overcome some trust issues. The banquet space was originally supposed to have opened by fall 2017, but the funding delay wreaked havoc among a handful of customers who had already scheduled events.

"We had a lot of bookings and a number of them had to be canceled," Kolkmeyer said. "We've been holding off on taking any additional ones" until the financing closes.

Now he wants to get the project done quickly to keep the remaining clients he had from before, while regaining or capturing new business going forward.

"That's the $64,000 question," he said. "Once the place opens, we feel it's going to be one of the premier event halls in Buffalo. It's going to be new, and people like things that are new, so we're hopeful that everything will move forward."

Kolkmeyer, a former accountant and First Niagara Bank executive who is now focused on development, purchased the three office buildings at 237, 241 and 251 Main from longtime owner and attorney David Sweet in 2014 for $3.2 million, with plans for a $48 million redevelopment to fill up the unused space.

The five-story Glenny – formerly called the Stanton Building but renamed for fine china importer William Glenny – now has 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments in its 44,200 square feet of space. That includes two large two-level loft apartments on the extra high ground floor, as well as a common laundry area in the basement.

Next door, the seven-story Roblin Building will have two 49 spaces of indoor parking on its bottom floor and basement, with a remote-operated vehicle elevator, reserved for residents of the Marin. The upper six floors will remain commercial.

Finally, the 14-story Marin, located at the southern end of the strip across from One Seneca Tower, will now feature 64 apartments from the 7th to the 14th floors, ranging in size from 900 to 2,300 square feet. The mix includes 28 one-bedroom apartments, 26 two-bedroom units and 10 three bedroom apartments, with rents varying from about $1,500 to $3,900.

"They have absolutely phenomenal views," Kolkmeyer said. "Most people think the Seneca One Tower is in the way, but it isn't at all. It doesn't block anyone's views from any apartment."

The door to the vault in the former Marine Trust Building. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The project originally called for the Marin apartments to be for-sale condominiums, but since the project now relies significantly on federal and state tax credits, the units have to be rentals for now, Kolkmeyer said. The third through sixth floors, meanwhile, will remain as office space.

"If we have the ability in the future to consider and obtain approval from the New York State Attorney General, we may give some consideration at that point to turning them into condos. But at this point, they're just going to be apartments," he said.

The project is funded by an investor group and a bank loan, in addition to the tax credits, and has already been approved by the city, as well as the National Park Service and State Historic Preservation Office. If all goes well, Kolkmeyer said he hopes to be finished by June 2019.

Nearby, Kolkmeyer bought and renovated the Downtown Garage at 93 Pearl St., investing more than $2.5 million into the historic 260-space parking ramp, with new LED lights, fire-safety sprinklers, a new roof and garage doors, a new drainage system and new signs. Crews also replaced asphalt with sealed concrete on the top parking level, repaired interior concrete and terra cotta on the facade, repainted and sealed both the interior and exterior, and installed new security cameras and a fully automated parking gate.

"We're still going through a couple of punch list items we have to address," Kolkmeyer said. "You think you've addressed all the leaks, but when winter comes along, you find a few more."

Finally, Kolkmeyer bought the former Campion Hall from Canisius in the fourth quarter of last year, paying $165,000 for the three-story building at 2136 Main, across the street from Sisters Hospital. Formerly a dorm for international students, the building will be converted into 23 "fairly small" units of about 400 square feet each, renting for $700 to $800 per month.

The $1 million project is similar to one Kolkmeyer did two years ago at 183 Jewett Parkway – also a former Canisius building that he redeveloped into 18 micro-apartments of about 300 square feet in size. Those rent for $600 to $750 per month, and "filled up quickly," he said, with tenants including transient people and frequent travelers who just needed "a place in Buffalo to crash" when they were in town.

"We found that there seems to be a market for these, and to the extent that we can, we try to bundle as many of the costs that a tenant would have into the rents," Kolkmeyer said. "It turns out to be a pretty good deal for people."

That project cost only $500,000, because most of the units already had their own bathroom, so crews had to construct only three. In the case of Campion, however, workers will have to install bathrooms and separate electrical service throughout the building.

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