Mark Croce believed in downtown Buffalo when few business people were showing faith in the city.
Croce, who died in a helicopter crash Thursday night in Pennsylvania, was a pioneering developer who not only dared to invest in downtown Buffalo at a time when it was reeling, but who also dared to do it by renovating some of its old, vacant buildings.
By doing that, Croce turned buildings that once were beacons on downtown's decay and decline into trend-setting renovation projects that showed not only the promise within them but also that it could be done.
Those projects planted some of the seeds of Buffalo’s revitalization and played an important role in turning skeptics of downtown’s future into believers.
As those seeds – along with others planted by Howard Zemsky's pioneering Larkinville investments and Mark Goldman's role in reviving Chippewa Street– took root, it emboldened others. There now is more private investment in office, hospitality and residential projects downtown than we've seen in decades – if not ever.
"His death is a real blow to Buffalo,” said Patrick Hotung, president of Violet Realty and general manager of Main Place Liberty Group. “No one did more to lead Buffalo’s renaissance than Mark.”
He invested in the Coliseum night club on Franklin Street almost 25 years ago, building on the Chippewa Street revival spurred by Goldman's transformational Calumet Cafe.
By the early 2000s, he had become a prolific developer of restaurants and nightclubs in the Chippewa/Franklin entertainment district, ranging from the high-end Buffalo Chophouse to the Irish-themed D'Arcy McGee's.
"He was the first individual that started to really do some projects that said, 'Boy, downtown is getting some legs,' ” said James Dentinger, president of McGuire Development. “And he did it in a way with the Chophouse and the design and decorations that was yet to be seen here in Buffalo. He did a big-city flavor with everything that he did.”
When the Statler Towers were in foreclosure and in danger of being demolished, Croce stepped in to buy the building in 2011 – before the Buffalo Billion and the talk of a Buffalo "renaissance" that it spawned.
Croce didn't have the deepest pockets for such a demanding and costly restoration, but he managed to spruce up the lower floors to create an event space that has kept the historic hotel building intact. Croce said last spring that he planned to spend $3 million on exterior repairs and renovations at the Niagara Square landmark.
Five years ago, when the downtown renovation boom was just starting, he teamed up with McGuire Development Co. and James Jerge to pump $24 million into the long-vacant Curtiss Building, turning it into a boutique hotel and restaurant, with a trendy rooftop bar and LED exterior lighting that quickly became a beacon for what the city's old buildings could become.
"Mark saw Buffalo’s potential early on," wrote the Montante family, which owns Uniland Development, in a statement on Friday. "Real estate development is not for the risk-averse, and Mark proved that he had the heart for it. His faith in the city’s future and the positive impact he made in the community is a great legacy."
The best example of that was the Curtiss – a project that Croce worked on for almost a decade until it finally opened in 2017, said Mark Hamister, CEO of the Hamister Group, a Buffalo-based hospitality company and competitor.
“He took on an old building. Who would have thought he could have done what he did?” Hamister said.
Similarly, with the Chophouse, Croce took a building that was “nothing special” and turned it into a restaurant so unique and popular “that people go out of their way to find it,” Hamister added.
“He loved being a restaurateur. He liked taking on difficult projects and doing something special with them,” Hamister said.
More recently, Croce was involved in conversations with Erie County and its consultants about finding ways to incorporate the Statler in a potential expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center at its current location.
Croce was trying to iron out an agreement with a developer based in New York City and California “who was interested and has done that in the past,” said real estate broker Richard Sterben. “We were probably close to a deal with the guy, if this didn’t happen.”
Croce's attorney, Robert E. Knoer, said the developer's businesses, run under the Buffalo Development Corp. umbrella, would continue "without interruption."
Croce’s latest project, the Emerson School on West Huron Street, is completed, with the school slated to move in within a week. The project is owned jointly by Croce, McGuire and Jerge, and that structure will continue, Dentinger said.
“That’ll be a really great legacy project for him, because he was an employer of many of those kids that are graduating from that school,” Dentinger said. “He liked the angle of keeping it in that corridor, near all the hotels. He had a big passion for hospitality and the people he worked with.”
As he tackled those projects, Croce also wasn't known for holding back.
“He was a good man and a terrible loss for this community,” said William Paladino, CEO of Ellicott Development Co. “We used to be a lot closer and good friends, but in recent years were more distant and more competitors. But I still respected him and what he has done. We would still talk when I saw him. He had his ways, but was successful in that manner.”
“He was outspoken, and he let you always know where he stood," Sterben said. "He didn’t play games."