Jeffrey Wynn is thrilled to be in Buffalo these days. And he's just getting started.
The 56-year-old Canadian real estate investor and his two brothers, Les and Paul, have been coming to Western New York for decades to visit their family in Amherst, where an uncle still lives. They've gotten to know the community from their trips, shopped at local stores and malls, perused antiques and admired the region's architecture.
Four years ago, they started buying up a few properties, accumulating 300 apartments and some retail space in a handful of buildings, before making a bigger splash with their purchase and renovation of the former Buffalo Athletic Club Building at near Niagara Square. In all, they've invested some $25 million in Western New York.
"I think the Buffalo market is a fantastic market," he said. "There's a lot of investors that are looking at the Buffalo market, nationally and internationally."
But the Wynns' investment in the Buffalo market was relatively minor compared to the region's bigger players. Until now.
This month, their family-owned company, Gold Wynn Residential, quickly became one of Buffalo Niagara's major real estate investors with their purchase of the entire real estate portfolio of Anthony Kissling's Kissling Interests.
The deal includes 841 apartments and 85,000 square feet of commercial space, in 18 properties in Buffalo and its suburbs. It's easily one of the biggest portfolio acquisitions in Buffalo in years, covering all of Kissling's higher-end apartments.
“It’s a big portfolio,” Wynn said. His family is already working on purchasing another collection of multifamily apartment buildings, though that will be half the size of the Kissling transaction, he added.
The acquisition will make the Wynns one of the biggest out-of-town real estate players in Buffalo, at a time when their ranks are growing. Only Douglas Jemal, the Washington, D.C.-based owner of One Seneca Tower, has spent more in Buffalo. Wynn praised Jemal for his courage and creativity in working to redevelop the city's tallest building.
Wynn says there's plenty of additional opportunity for his family in Buffalo – especially after their Toronto-based parent holding company, Wynn Group of Cos., sold its entire Toronto-area real estate portfolio last year for $1 billion. That will allow the brothers to refocus their attention on more affordable markets in the United States and abroad – including their current business interests in Buffalo.
"Why Buffalo? It’s 70 minutes from Toronto," Wynn said. "Getting from Buffalo to Oakville takes me 40 minutes. From Oakville to Toronto will take me 'til Tuesday. That’s the problem."
But Wynn said other developers are coming, too, citing the growing international publicity for Buffalo and the spurt of interest he experienced with the Kissling deal – in which he assembled "a lot of investors" from Canada as part of the purchase that Gold Wynn will now manage.
"I have investors this time. It’s not just me. But they’re gung-ho for Buffalo. They love Buffalo," he said. "It's a great city. It's a great urban landscape. It has everything going for it."
Indeed, with the recent surge in redevelopment activity and new investment, Wynn described Buffalo as a rising second-tier city, alongside Pittsburgh, Nashville and Austin.
"You see the renaissance now, but the next five years, you're going to see a different Buffalo, a complete huge turnaround," Wynn said. "Buffalo has been recognized nationally and internationally for its attributes and attractiveness as an urban city. That's Buffalo's direction right now."
The full purchase price for Kissling was not disclosed, and many of the transactions are structured as lease-to-own, so the final deal values are not publicly available. But among the properties are the renovated Cathedral Place in downtown Buffalo – valued at more than $9 million, according to city records – and the Remington Lofts in North Tonawanda, in which Kissling invested more than $30 million.
Others are worth several million dollars more in total but need significant renovations and upgrades. Addressing those issues are the next steps for the family-owned company, which will start with $5 million but ultimately plans to spend tens of millions of dollars over the next few months to "stabilize" the buildings and fill up vacancies.
"Half of the buildings that Kissling had are stunning. He’s done a wonderful job," Jeffrey Wynn said. "But now the ones which have not been done, we’re going to bring them up to the same level, and a little more architecturally, historically. In four or five months, every building will be beautiful."
Wynn cited Kissling's mansions on Summer and North streets, as well as high-rise towers at Gates Circle, where he plans to repaint, and put in new carpeting and chandeliers, among other touches to "bring them back to the grandeur that they were." The materials were ordered weeks ago, he added.
"They're going to look like 'Gone with the Wind' homes when I'm finished," he said.
In the future, Wynn predicted much more focus on the East Side of Buffalo, now that developers are "running out of opportunity" around downtown, North Buffalo, the lower West Side and eventually even South Buffalo.
"The East Side of Buffalo is the last place to invest," he said. "We can buy well enough and it has a lot of room to build on. We're very encouraged."
He noted the "huge tracts of land" that are available, and cited the growth already occurring near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and nearby neighborhoods. Specifically, he said his investors want to fill in the area's geographic gaps, building new town houses in a "new urbanism" style.
"The East Side is the next best thing that Buffalo has, and Buffalonians don't recognize that," Wynn added. "You're going to see huge infill in residential."
What's helping to drive that new activity and opportunity is the growing interest in urban apartment living among younger millennials and empty nesters from the suburbs, Wynn said.
"The younger millennials are moving into the city because they do not want to buy a home," he said. "They don’t want to live near Amherst or Williamsville. They don’t want the mortgage. They don’t want the grass to cut."
Buffalo also benefits from its affordability and relatively lower cost of rental or ownership, as well as its proximity to major cities, its historic and architectural legacy, the appeal of its park system and parkways, and its cultural and waterfront attractions, he added.
"These are things other cities have not inherited, preserved or never had, whereas Buffalo can and does promote successfully," Wynn said. "There has been the incredible surge of investor interest from national and international business people I have met who have this city on their radar now."
But he also reserved some criticism for the lack of adequate density in the city, and urged the Brown administration to finish the effort to return cars to the rest of Main Street. "You just need density in the city core. You need more people," he said.
He also suggested there are too many parking lots that should be turned into glass-walled apartment towers with lower-level parking and retail. “It’s a simple thing to build, but you don’t see it here,” he said. “That’s what they do in every city in the world.”
The Wynns started more than 40 years ago with furniture and real estate investments in Toronto, eventually amassing 4,000 apartments, a solar panel manufacturing and installation business, a plastic injection molding and assembly business, storage, and a network of Wynn Fitness Clubs, which will soon have six locations in Canada. Through their Goldwynn Inc. and Gold Wynn Residential divisions, the privately held family company also acquired residential and retail properties in Tulsa, Okla., where they now have 1,000 units, as well as in other areas.
The company also built a hotel in the Dominican Republic and a condo hotel in Nassau, Bahamas, and acquired a mall in the Israeli city of Herzliya, on the Mediterranean Sea, which the company is converting to high-tech offices.
They expanded to Buffalo four years ago after meeting local real estate broker Chris Greco, who is an investor with them along with his cousin, Dennis.
"It’s a hobby for me. I don’t have to do this anymore. Otherwise, I’d be bored," he said. "And I enjoy doing it."