Promise to help them build it, and they will come.
In fact, about 30 of them came out, not for a fictional baseball field, but to create the business – and build the business district – of their dreams along one of Buffalo’s East Side commercial strips with help from the Buffalo Billion II program.
While not dangling the millions in aid that some other programs offer big developers, the state’s East Side Commercial District Program aims to boost small business owners and would-be entrepreneurs while simultaneously revitalizing some of Buffalo’s most important corridors.
"This was a priority project (the state) wanted to focus on," said Edward Flynn, director of planning for LaBella Associates, one of the consultant groups assisting with the project.
The effort has four target areas: Broadway-Fillmore, which includes Fillmore Avenue between Sycamore Street and Paderewski Drive as well as Broadway between Reed Street and Memorial Drive; the Martin Luther King Jr. Park neighborhood, which includes Fillmore between East Ferry Street and North Parade Avenue; Kensington-Bailey, which takes in Bailey Avenue between LaSalle Avenue and Route 33; and Jefferson Avenue, between East Ferry and Dodge streets. All also include buildings on corner lots.
Each area will get $500,000 to dispense in grants of up to $50,000 each for commercial building improvements, with building owners putting up 15% of the cost. The money can be used for small additions, facade improvements, signs, awnings and other exterior enhancements as well as interior work such as new floors, walls or plumbing and electrical upgrades.
Aisha Rashada opened Shy’s Original Steak House three years ago in a former bank on Fillmore Avenue. Now she wants to get the building’s drive-thru torn down, do some cement work and make other improvements. After listening to the presentation, she is thinking about applying.
"It seems tangible, but it still seems like a reach," Rashada said. "But it’s an opportunity, so I want to take advantage of that."
So did others, some of whom were disappointed to learn that their businesses lie just outside of the program’s target area.
But the turnout at the first meeting, held last week in the Jericho Road Community Health Center on Broadway, is proof of the initiative that can be tapped on the East Side. After feeling slighted by all of the focus on the waterfront, the medical corridor and other parts of the city, all East Side business owners need is a signal that their commercial strips are valued as much as those in other business districts.
Empire State Development is administering the program along with Broadway Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services in the Broadway Fillmore and MLK corridors, the University District Community Development Association in Ken-Bailey, and Citizens’ Alliance along with the Black Chamber of Commerce of Western New York in the Jefferson Avenue corridor. The agencies – picked because of their track records with similar programs – establish the criteria by which applications will be judged, with guidance from ESD. They also set the deadline for submissions, though right now the tentative deadline is Jan. 31 for each corridor.
Informational meetings like the one at Jericho Road will be held for the MLK district at 6 p.m. Nov. 21 in the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, 1324 Jefferson Ave.; for the Ken-Bailey district from 8 to 9 a.m. and from 6 to 7 p.m. Nov. 25 in the University District Community Development Association office, 995 Kensington Ave.; and for the Jefferson Avenue district at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 in the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center, 334 E. Utica St.
The aim of the program, part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $50 million East Side Corridor Economic Development Fund, is clear from the ranking criteria that Broadway Fillmore NHS will use to assess applications. On a 100-point scale, 20 points will go to projects that "will have a significant visual impact in the target area."
Another 20 points each will go to projects that promote stability – such as those proposed by longtime building owners and that constitute a significant investment compared to the building’s value – as well as to those that seem most ready to go.
In other words, the focus is on projects that will enhance the curb appeal of these East Side corridors, that will be around for the duration and that can make an impact right now.
It didn’t take that long for Canalside to flourish; these business strips can be enhanced just as quickly, now that the state has said doing that is just as important to Buffalo’s future.