Buffalo’s technology scene is clustering around Seneca One Tower, itself a $120 million “Tech Village” redevelopment by developer Douglas Jemal.
The idea has proven a magnet for innovation-minded corporations, from M&T Bank’s “Tech Hub” to Odoo’s East Coast operations hub.
And it’s part of a longer-term vision to create a visible corridor of tech businesses from Canalside to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
But downtown isn’t the only place in Buffalo with solid live-work-shop bones. If tech continues to play a bigger role in the regional economy, one question is how much will seep into communities surrounding the urban core.
There is transformative potential within that premise. Take T.P.W. Websites – a growing software firm in Tonawanda that moved its headquarters this year into a newly renovated, 9,000-square-foot facility that was a First Niagara Bank branch.
T.P.W. is actively looking to grow its 17-person workforce, and founder and President Timothy Weibel is keenly aware of how recruits respond to a cool working environment. The office is a short walk from restaurants, shops and the Erie Canal. He sometimes takes his boat to work in the summer.
“We love what’s going on in Tonawanda,” he said. “We have the benefit of cool architecture, the walkability of a city and the convenience of parking.”
The dynamic isn’t limited to Tonawanda. Higher education software firm Mongoose has quickly expanded into office space in the village of Orchard Park – going from a tiny office and three employees six years ago to more than 50 employees and 12,500 square feet of newly renovated space across two buildings overlooking East Quaker Street.
Entrepreneurship has begun to seep into civic strategies. The Hamburg Town Board recently approved $200,000 in funding to incubator Pitch Hamburg, an initiative designed “to ignite Hamburg’s startup business community,” according to the town’s funding announcement. The funding will be used to establish a location for the program and support staff and programming.
Sean Doyle, executive director of Hamburg Development Cos., said Pitch Hamburg isn’t tailored specifically to high-tech business. Instead, it will be designed to support the next generation of innovation in Hamburg, including entrepreneurs who can support the village’s lively restaurant and retail scene.
Still, the initiative has been influenced by 43North, the state-sponsored startup competition and incubator located in Seneca One. Recognizable members of Buffalo’s entrepreneurship scene who are also Hamburg residents, such as Helm Experience & Design’s Jonathan Gorczyca and HELIXintel’s Peter Burakowski, are supporting the effort
“We are looking to grow our economy from within,” Doyle said. “We want to support people who live in the community to build the economy of the Southtowns.”
Generally speaking, downtown Buffalo still has a big advantage when it comes to attracting high-tech, high-growth business, said William Heussler, a broker with Hanna Commercial Real Estate.
“A lot of the people those businesses are trying to attract the younger population. They really like living in the Elmwood Village, downtown Buffalo, the communities that Doug Jemal is building,” Heussler said.
Part of the issue is infrastructure. Many of Western New York’s walkable villages don’t have the physical space to support a venture-funded company that wants to quickly grow its workforce, Heussler said. There are exceptions to every rule, but the real estate dynamics in Western New York form a tunnel that sends most high-growth entrepreneurs into the city’s urban core, he said.
Some communities outside Buffalo do have that space. In Lockport, fast-growing automotive “super app” startup Jerry has taken root in the Harrison Place incubator. Jerry is considering where to place its long-term home in Western New York, and its top local managers have said staying in Lockport is an option.
In Niagara Falls, the TReC incubator on Niagara Street is filled to capacity despite the limitations of the pandemic. The incubator is run by Niagara University’s Global Tourism Institute, in a the building that reopened two years ago after a $5 million renovation by TM Montante (16 upper-floor apartments in the buildings are fully leased).
Just like Hamburg is including Main Street entrepreneurs in its business strategy, leaders in Niagara Falls believe their proximity to the border can ignite high-tech growth.
“If you are going to grow a tech company in the U.S., you can build a unicorn in Niagara Falls and be home for dinner,” said Pat Whalen, director of the tourism institute. “This doesn’t happen overnight: You have to keep cobbling all these little pieces together but we are in the process of doing that.”