When Ahmed Saleh held the ceremonial grand opening of his bright, spacious Mandela Market and gas station on Broadway at Jefferson Avenue this month, most of it would have looked familiar to anyone who has ever set foot inside a mini-mart.
There were the 12 Citgo gas pumps outside and 6,000 square feet of shelves and coolers stocked with milk, pop, chips, food and all of the other items inside the immaculate, welcoming store.
But one element was conspicuously absent: the Tim Hortons shop that Saleh had counted on, so much so that the drive-thru lane and booth, as well as interior space for the coffee and doughnut shop, were built as part of the roughly $2 million project.
But despite all of his preparation and communications that led him to believe the site would get a Tim Hortons – ubiquitous elsewhere, but not on the East Side of Buffalo – he’s still waiting.
He’s waiting despite the support of community and elected officials, the Interdenominational Council of Bishops and nearly 1,800 signatures on a petition showing support for the coffee shop in that part of the city. That’s in contrast to the reaction to a Tim Hortons planned by Carl and William Paladino’s Ellicott Development in the Michigan Avenue historic corridor, where residents don’t want it and where the developers had to get a court order to proceed with a project that is only a mile from two other Tim Hortons shops. Certainly, the corporation is not concerned about proximity.
Saleh is waiting despite contacting the company as far back as eight years ago, after opening his first station at Jefferson and East Ferry Street in 2007 and being told then, he said, that the neighborhood around that site was too crime-ridden.
He’s wondering how banks such as First Niagara and M&T could finance his projects, considering both him and the neighborhoods worth investing in, but a coffee shop won’t.
And he’s wondering how other developers are spending $50 million to convert the former Buffalo Forge Manufacturing Co. plant right across Broadway from his gas station into a new residential community with affordable apartments and retail – a sign of the neighborhood’s rebirth – yet he can’t get a shop to serve the coffee so many Buffalonians crave.
He’s not picky about the arrangement, whether it’s ownership or a franchise or whatever.
"I just want to put something in the neighborhood – a Tim Hortons," he said, still wondering where he and his neighborhood went wrong, the same neighborhood targeted for part of the $50 million Gov. Andrew Cuomo just announced for the East Side because of its importance to the region.
Initially, there was enthusiasm about a Tim Hortons in Saleh's site. Then, suddenly, there wasn’t, said real estate broker Rick Recckio, who is still trying to pursue a deal.
"It doesn’t make sense to me," Recckio said, referring to the about-face despite the new development taking place in the neighborhood. He said he never got a clear explanation as to why Saleh’s effort to get a Tim Hortons stalled. "I have no idea. I didn’t get the real answer why."
Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen – one of several politicians writing the company in support of Saleh – also has tried to get answers.
In a letter responding to Pridgen last week, a Tim Hortons official said the company disagrees with the contention that "we have declined the ‘neighborhood’ where the Mandela Market is located," saying they have offered Saleh the chance to "apply to be a franchisee, provide additional details on this site, and discuss other possible sites."
Neither a potential franchisee nor company officials would respond to my requests for comment, with a Tim Hortons spokeswoman referring by email to the letter sent to Pridgen and saying, "We have nothing further to add at this time."
Pridgen, however, said he was able to talk with a company official.
"The one thing they did not say to me is that the door was closed for a possible Tim Hortons at that location," he said.
Citing the neighborhood’s growth and the community’s response, the Ellicott Council member said he remains "cautiously optimistic."
Saleh, however, can read between the lines – whether it’s the ones in the Tim Hortons letter or the ones on a map illustrating how the company has avoided most of the East Side. Look at a Google map of Tim Hortons locations around Buffalo, with its vast empty swath on the East Side – not to mention the chain’s abundance along thoroughfares like Transit Road – and it seems apparent what’s going on.
Over and over, the SUNY Buffalo State graduate, successful businessman and community pillar keeps coming back to the same lament: "This is wrong," Saleh says.
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