Can downtown Buffalo be a destination for tech workers and companies? – The Business Journals

There are plenty of software firms in downtown Buffalo.
Some have been around, in one form or other, for decades. Some are fast-growing newcomers.
A few have hundreds of employees. Others number their workers in the dozens.
But there’s something more substantial on Mike Wisler’s mind. Call it a vibe.
“The modern tech worker wants to spend their workday in a space that inspires them,” he said. “They also want that space to be in a community where they can live, work, play and collaborate. I think we’re still missing a little bit of that walkable, living downtown.”
Wisler is chief information officer at M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB), and one of the intellectual architects of the bank’s $58 million Tech Hub campus at Seneca One Tower.
He often invokes the formerly vacant tower – transformed by developer Douglas Jemal into a tech-centric “village” with companies, apartments and retail spaces – as the beginning of a broader technology corridor that spans from Canalside to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Salt Lake City has Silicon Slopes. Detroit has Automation Alley.
Could Buffalo’s be…?
“I’m not naming it,” Wisler said with a laugh.
That’s for someone else. But Wisler does believe deeply that the community stands to gain from a more palpable atmosphere downtown, fed by tech workers who live, work and shop there. Technology products and services are the new vanguard of the financial services industry and those are led by high-aptitude talent that finds reason to stay here or move here.
In other words, this is more than a like-to-have, according to Wisler. The “tech village” concept is a bat signal, of sorts, to the executives and tech workers of tomorrow about all that Buffalo has to offer.
“The idea of a technology community all in one spot has a lot of gravity,” he said. “We know that innovation happens at a higher pace and for a longer duration when those who are innovating have a physical presence.”
Will technology companies fan out from Seneca One? There are plenty of meaningful developments underway on and around Main Street, many of them led by Jemal, whose frenetic development pace is poised to collectively add hundreds of residential units to the city in the coming years, if not more.
But it’s also true there isn’t a vast catalog of tech companies scouring the Main Street spine. If all goes well, perhaps those companies are the ones nestled for now in the tower, particularly those in the 43North incubator. Or perhaps Buffalo’s cost-of-living and emergent tech scene convince more technology corporations to open offices here.
It remains a theory, in other words.
Wisler talks often about his vision with Kyle Ciminelli, executive vice president of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. Both men moved to Buffalo around four years ago. Wisler was a Capital One executive working in Washington, D.C. who was recruited with the mandate to prepare a venerable “super-regional” bank for new ways of doing business. Ciminelli was paving his own road in commercial real estate in Manhattan before he felt the pull of his hometown and family business.
The boomerang and the high-pedigree recruit: In some ways they embody the principle they believe in.
“You’ve got Canalside on one side and the medical campus on the other, and the question is how we continue to fill in the dots between two successful anchors,” said Ciminelli, whose company is based at the approximate midway point in Fountain Plaza. “How do we fill in those dots? Hopefully it’s going to be driven by the hiring binge that’s going on with these tech companies.”
Ciminelli Real Estate is the leasing agent and facilities manager at Seneca One. Nearby, the company completed its conversion last year of a three-acre surface parking lot at 201 Ellicott St. into a $75 million building with 201 apartments and the Braymiller Market, a neighborhood grocery store.
Between places to live and places to shop, Ciminelli said it’s an example of how downtown is becoming something different.
“Seneca One only has about 300,000 square feet left,” he said. “Ultimately, if it continues its resurgence, we’ll need to find other homes for the companies there. The hope is that they’ll anchor new developments and help us connect those dots.”
Some dots on the map already exist. Besides the new hospital buildings on the medical campus, there is also the Innovation Center, which is home to startup-turned-unicorn ACV Auctions, which went public last year. The University at Buffalo recently opened its Incubator @ CBLS facility, one of UB’s flagship initiatives in its effort to support more high-growth companies. A few dozen startups, including HELIXintel, have raised significant amounts of private funding, call that facility home.
“Interest is coming in from all over,” said Rick Gardner, UB associate vice president for economic development. “Some of the startups are from UB students and UB researchers. Others are regional startups that come to us.”
There are plenty of other anecdotes on the walk from the medical campus toward Canalside. Kyklo – a venture capital-funded tech startup that moved its headquarters to Buffalo in 2020 – is settling into new space on the 700 block of Main Street. Another tech company, CrowFly, is a neighbor.
Tech-enabled employee benefits firm OneBridge Benefits moved its downtown headquarters in 2020 to a larger space in the Ellicott Development Co.’s Crosby Building, near the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
Ellicott Development has had success with other digital health tenants. Willis Towers Watson (formerly local startup Liazon Corp.) is an anchor tenant with several hundred employees at its Fairmont Creamery building on Scott Street.
Ellicott Development CEO Bill Paladino said leasing to tech firms in Buffalo often requires a patient approach – supporting them early in the hopes that they’ll become larger employers with a more stable balance sheet down the line.
“You’ve got to believe in some of these people,” he said. “Sometimes you have to take a risk and, if they succeed, the risk pays off for you.”
Paladino pointed out the changing tide of amenities and residences around downtown. His company’s $16 million Cooperage project on Ohio Street — adjacent to downtown – has rock climbing, a gym, residences, a distillery and a craft brewery. It’s been an ambiance, he said, that attracts young professionals.
That vibrancy can spill out of individual projects into a more energetic communal feeling, he said.
“The good thing is these types of workers all want to be downtown,” he said. “But you have to create the right environment both work and lifestyle-wise where they can see themselves.”
Seneca One was vacant only five years ago – now it houses not only M&T Bank but fast-growing new entries on the Buffalo business scene such as business software corporation Odoo (which just signed on for a second floor), tech-enabled financial crimes consultancy AML RightSource and numerous other tenants.
As the pandemic raged on for two years, many of the startup companies that call the tower home have consciously punted on real estate decisions, even as they raised millions of dollars and saw their workforces expand significantly. Leaders at some of those companies have said privately that the time is near to make long-term decisions about real estate in Buffalo.
Maybe they’ll follow HiOperator, which moved to Buffalo with a handful of team members in late 2018 after winning a 43North award. HiOperator – which blends technology with customer service – is settling into its new home in the Paul Kolkmeyer’s Roblin Building, which is in the shadow of Seneca One. HiOperator is now approaching 200 local companies and renovating another 12,000-square-foot floor in the building.
Kolkmeyer’s downtown real estate portfolio includes three adjacent buildings near the tower, including the Roblin, Glenny and Marin buildings. He said most of the interest that comes his way are from the traditional vanguard of downtown businesses – law firms and nonprofits.
“I don’t see tech companies coming to me and asking for space,” Kolkmeyer said. “To me it’s a longer-term goal that we could do more in this downtown corridor, maybe a few years down the road once some of the companies in Seneca One expand and move out.”
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