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UDCDA Looks Ahead to Supporting Small Business Owners in the New Year

by Sarah Maurer

It’s been a busy year for our partners at the University District Community Development Association, and the New Year promises to bring more positive change to Bailey Avenue with the implementation of the Buffalo Main Streets Initiative.

UDCDA’s participation in the Buffalo Main Streets Initiative evolved from the organization’s collaboration with the Bailey Avenue Business Association on the Bailey Fights Blight initiative in 2015. While that effort focused on streetscape improvements and utilizing public art to enhance the aesthetic of the corridor, it also gave way to an opportunity to help small business owners invest in interior renovations and façade improvements.

“Bailey Fights Blight was a community-based, comprehensive look at the conditions of Bailey Avenue – what the major issues were and some low cost ways to address them,” said Darren Cotton, UDCDA Director of Community Development & Planning. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure, so we did a blight survey where volunteers went out with smartphones to canvass neighborhoods from Winspear to Genesee Street.”

Using an app on their phones, volunteers were able to gather basic statistics on where they found broken windows or doors that needed repair, as well as take pictures of the buildings that needed to be secured. Their canvassing efforts provided a starting point for mapping out a strategy.

The initial focus was to secure vacant storefronts and complete some basic streetscape projects that would enhance the appearance of the Bailey Avenue corridor, and thus improve perceptions of the neighborhood’s potential. Over 200 volunteers from the community, local schools, and businesses got involved. Organizers collaborated with the Junior League of Buffalo to put artwork on some of the boarded up buildings. They also mulched the trees along the corridor for the first time in a decade. The business association also worked with the fine arts program at Villa Maria College to install their first piece of public art – a mural at Berkshire and Bailey Avenue.

With these smaller projects came the realization that more was needed to continue the revitalization of the commercial corridor. “One of the items we included in the initial project plan for Bailey Fights Blight was the idea of façade improvements and new signage,” Cotton said. “We set it aside as a budget item, but didn’t know where funding would come from.”

UDCDA collaborated with LISC to complete a MetroEdge Market analysis for Bailey Avenue, which they included in their application to the Better Buffalo Fund’s Buffalo Main Streets Initiative. Through the program, Empire State Development and NYS Homes and Community Renewal provided grant funding to local non-profits to assist business owners with building renovations and public space enhancements in mixed-use neighborhood commercial districts. Empire State Development awarded UDCDA with a technical assistance grant to help the organization prepare for their application for BMSI funds. This fall, UDCDA was able to secure a $300,000 award to support property owners on Bailey Avenue and continue their efforts to build a thriving East Side commercial corridor and hub for small business growth.

 “It’s a really awesome intersection of the Bailey Fights Blight project and leveraging the resources of the Better Buffalo Fund to build out that vision,” Cotton said. “We had seven business owners who said, ‘Here’s what I want to do. If I’m able to access this grant, I’ll be able to push that forward.’ The fact that we actually have the money in hand will be more of an encouragement to get people engaged.”

The organization has received responses from several businesses, with needs ranging from new signage and lighting, to windows, siding, roof, and energy efficiency upgrades. They’re also looking into renovating the storefronts adjacent to the newly revitalized Varsity Theatre. All projects will be reviewed by a selection committee comprised of residents, business owners, design professionals and other community stakeholders.

Volunteers paint a mural on the side of a business as part of the Bailey Fights Blight public art initiative, spearheaded by UDCDA.
Volunteers paint a mural on the side of a business as part of the Bailey Fights Blight public art initiative, spearheaded by UDCDA.

With the momentum created by the Bailey Fights Blight initiative, the re-opening of the Varsity Theatre, and the Buffalo Main Streets Initiative, Cotton sees a lot of potential in Bailey Avenue’s future.

 “It reiterates the need to really get down in the trenches,” he said, reflecting on the past year of working with residents and business owners in the University District. “Even if it’s going door-to-door talking to people, and making sure there is buy-in. There are people who have been here for the long haul, but see the neighborhood as viable and having potential. That’s when you know the neighborhood can come back, and those are the people you want to work with, lift up and connect with resources.”

UDCDA’s successful engagement with the surrounding community is enhanced by the fact that their community development director is, himself, a resident of the district. Cotton says working where he lives has given him a unique perspective on community development.

“There’s a tendency for all good intentions, but community development tends to be a top-down practice,” Cotton said. “But when you live it every day and you can talk to your neighbors about what they think, you really get a sense of what people want to be done in their community. That gives me so much more of a sense of duty. Certain parts of the neighborhood are struggling, but you know there are resources out there. Certain neighborhoods might not have the capacity to apply for funding or get the types of sponsorships that others get. So how do you reconcile that gap? However small my part is in that, it’s exciting and it gives me a purpose to go to work. So that Kensington-Bailey and University Heights are just as successful as the Elmwood Village or North Buffalo. So they aren’t cookie cutter versions, but the best versions of themselves.”