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Editorial: M&T, Seneca One tower creating economic catalyst for downtown

Before developer Douglas Jemal bought the Seneca One tower in 2016, some real estate observers thought the vacant 38-story tower should be demolished.

Another developer said the building “reflects where Buffalo has been,” not where it was going.

M&T Bank’s announcement Thursday that it will bring its new technology hub – along with 1,000 or more jobs – to the skyscraper moves the tower to the forefront of where downtown is headed.

M&T’s presence ensures the tallest building in the Buffalo Niagara region will become a catalyst for the ongoing reinvention of downtown.

The vacant tower has been an afterthought for several years, sort of a sleeping giant situated between Canalside and the rest of downtown. Thanks to Jemal, a wealthy developer from Washington, D.C., who decided to take a chance on Buffalo, Seneca One tower will come back to life with offices, apartments and retail stores.

“In M&T Bank, we secured not just a tenant – we found a partner in our vision for this building and for our city,” Jemal said Thursday.

It was fitting that M&T and Jemal announced the deal on the same day the new Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum opened its doors, more evidence of the new development reaching critical mass in the district around Canalside and Harborcenter.

Rene Jones, M&T’s chairman and CEO, spoke Thursday about the challenge of attracting and developing tech talent, for the bank and the community as a whole. That suggests M&T will scout new talent from outside the region, which would help Buffalo Niagara move toward the elusive goal of a growing population.

The transformation of Seneca One tower into a desirable destination for work, residential life and commerce will be a strong selling point when potential tech employees are pondering whether to move here.

M&T will occupy 11 floors, about 25% of the 1.2 million square feet in the hulking tower. There will be room for more commercial tenants who wish to “co-locate” with M&T. Other technology companies may well follow.

The tower was built as the headquarters for Marine Midland Bank, which was later absorbed into HSBC. Jemal pointed out last year that the basement levels originally housed HSBC Bank USA’s data center.

“There’s not a lot of buildings that have the connectivity that Seneca One has,” he said.

In addition to recruiting out of state, the creation of the new hub is a good reason for M&T to advertise itself to local talent, particularly new college graduates.

We need more graduates from the University at Buffalo and other area colleges to chase their dreams – and their first paychecks – right in Western New York. Attractive job opportunities and a millennial-friendly lifestyle downtown can be a way to keep more of our talent from going elsewhere. In the Rust Belt, “brain drain” is a luxury we cannot afford.

Jemal is spending more than $120 million to reanimate the building he bought for $12.6 million three years ago. He is a developer with a reputation for being able to salvage difficult properties.
“I like bringing things back,” he said in 2016.

That’s a sentiment we fully endorse. This is another important step in Buffalo finding a path to prosperity in the digital age.

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