As Buffalo’s revitalization began to take hold over the last decade, residents on the city’s East Side also had dreams for their neighborhoods and plenty of ideas on how to bring improvements to the community. Residents knew they wanted improved streetscapes, investment in small business, and promotion and protection for the historic assets that were core anchors in the community among other things. What was lacking were focused attention, investment, and coordination.
Things began to change in 2019 when New York State allocated funding, infrastructure, and programming with the intent to build economic strength in the largely forgotten neighborhoods on the East Side. Funded with $65 million through Governor Cuomo’s and Empire State Development (ESD)’s Buffalo Billion initiative, the program began to take shape through the leadership of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute (UBRI) after significant community engagement to ensure East Side residents and businesses drove the plan.
To complement the state funding, a unique partnership of private and philanthropic organizations, including The John R. Oishei Foundation, came together with the goal of strengthening East Side organizations to ensure the success of the program. The funders collaborative created a pooled fund of more than $8 million with the goal of building capacity and organizational support for East Side nonprofit organizations. By funding capacity-building, strategic planning, training, and professional development, the organizations would be better positioned to leverage ESD’s investment and to reach the revitalized vision they had for their community.
According to Larry Cook, Senior Vice President of the Oishei Foundation and Co-chair of the Funders Advisory Committee, “Our area funders had been supporting work on the East Side over the years but efforts had been siloed. By collaborating, we realized we could have a more comprehensive and broader impact. The hope was to jumpstart the community, spur additional investment, and fast track progress and successes.”
Now called East Side Avenues and led by UBRI, the project was off to a strong start in late 2019. UBRI had assembled a team to administer the program, identified nonprofit partners to work with the local community, and began to offer programs that would help build effectiveness in delivering services, thereby strengthening the overall initiative. Developed from input gathered directly from residents, the project is focused on funding and planning revitalization strategies for four commercial corridors.
The focus of East Side Avenues is to support locally-owned businesses with a focus on projects that provide economic benefits to people working and living in the community. Five capacity-building programs are in place to strengthen the state’s investment including transforming each avenue’s business district; community-based real estate development training; stabilizing at-risk historic buildings; promoting the history and heritage of the Michigan Street corridor; and reactivating the Central Terminal.
As the pandemic hit in March, UBRI adapted to the COVID-19 environment quickly, looking for new ways to engage the community, roll out classes and programs, and keep the critical East Side revitalization work moving forward. UBRI expanded their role as advisors for communications, strategy, and planning that became more critical in the age of COVID-19 and assisted organizations in adapting to new circumstances.
Initial and ongoing community engagement was the most important element in the creation of East Side Avenues and that input continues to be critical. According to Laura Quebral, Director of UBRI, it was resident feedback that pushed to continue programs when COVID hit.
According to Quebral, “This is a community that has had its share of setbacks over the years and they were not going to let the pandemic stop the strong work that had begun. That was borne out as we saw that our online classes in real estate development, for instance, still had incredible attendance and engagement. The community told us that they wanted this and that now was not the time to hit the brakes.”
Quebral says an important element in the project was the trust that has been built within the community by listening and implementing programs that residents asked for and following through with funding, training, and other assistance. It became very important for the UBRI team and its partners to continue the work during the pandemic, albeit in new and flexible ways, to continue to build that trust and to leverage the incredible resiliency of the community.
While East Side Avenues is still in its early stages, there are already clear signs of progress including the launching of new programs such as the real estate development training that has attracted many residents. Quebral points to the impact of capacity building that has led to a higher skills level among nonprofit staff who are now better equipped to provide leadership, governance, strategic planning, and effective marketing. Nonprofit leaders are also building networks within the community that are helping them learn from each other and to engage in collective problem solving that benefits everyone.
“Residents had really strong ideas about their community vision. East Side Avenues is the vehicle that helps them realize those dreams and builds on the considerable assets that have always existed there but had not been leveraged in the past,” added Quebral.