Our free and inclusive Waterkeeper Ride this coming Monday, August 24th, will start from the new Northland Workforce Training Center (683 Northland Ave, 6:30pm start, see bottom of this page for many pandemic-induced changes to Slow Roll) for two reasons – first, the Northland area is where the Scajaquada Creek was buried, a sad fact about which we’ll learn more over the next week; and second, as part of Waterkeeper’s watching over our local waterways – even those underground – they’re hosting a cleanup around the area before the ride.

That said, this location was already on our original 2020 schedule, planned with the surrounding Northland Beltline Taxpayers Association, a resident-run organization that works closely with government agencies behind the redevelopment of this longtime industrial corridor. One of their point people is Art Hall, who grew up nearby before moving to Orlando and returning in 2015, now serving as Northland Project Manager for the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) and Senior Pastor at Journey Church – we first met Art as a resident of Walden Park, and since the onset of the pandemic have stayed connected through emergency food delivery.

Learn more about all this below and look for Art in our pack for bikes come Monday.

What sparked all the new developments on Northland?

Back in 2014, the Buffalo Billion initiative awarded funding to BUDC to acquire and redevelop 35 acres of vacant or underutilized land including 700,000 square feet of industrial building space formerly known as Niagara Machine and Tool Works, with a mission to transform this space into productive and catalytic uses.

The first step we took was to formulate a redevelopment plan for some of the key properties, working with the City of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning and Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. We created a stakeholder advisory group made of laypersons, leaders and experts from the community and then held stakeholder meetings and  neighborhood public meetings to begin to discuss the emergence of an advanced manufacturing business park known as the Northland Beltline – we especially threw “Beltline” in there because what people might not know is that the old auto industry machinery and the parts they made at 683 Northland were so big that the trains would run through the building in order to load them on.

The purpose was to return these properties to productive uses, assist with revitalizing the surrounding neighborhood and bring job opportunities. The idea was not just to plop this into the middle of a neighborhood without it connecting to and benefiting from it. So we wanted to create a new training and manufacturing hub on the East Side of Buffalo, and to be a leader in advance manufacturing.

What inspired you to repatriate to Buffalo?

I often say that it was nothing but the lord that brought me back, but I think like many others, I always kept up with Buffalo during my time in Florida. And I think a part of the excitement and hope is that I’ve always wanted to be a contributor to the growth and development and change in my neighborhood. I grew up on Box and Kehr, just a couple minutes away, and though I never thought that I’d be with Northland or BUDC, I’ve always wanted to be a developer committed to “Making Equity Planning Work,” to steal a term from the author Norman Krumholz.

There have been so many things throughout the course of time that have contributed to the disinvestment of this and other East Side neighborhoods – zoning that kept people from purchasing homes, not just redlining by banks not giving loans, but by law, deed restrictions keeping Blacks from purchasing homes. Instead in the area they created landfills, and industries that contributed to health hazards around the East Side.

So now, how do we do these new kinds of developments and make them equitable? How can we begin to position ourselves so that public as well as private investments are able to produce some type of catalytic momentum on the East Side. That has always been a passion of mine.

How has the pandemic affected your life and work?

Obviously it’s slowed things up, from our contractors not being onsite and working. For me personally, it allowed me to work from home and really take some time to reflect on some things, and I think it really got us to thinking a little about our resources and how we approach our work.

One thing that came out was with my church – my wife had an idea about getting groceries to the whole senior population, so we connected with schools and community centers and with a small budget of about $1,000 started a whole system of getting groceries to seniors. Then the inevitable happened – we ran out of funds in about a week and Instacart got backed up, so we had to put things on hold and then come out of pocket at the church, but we kept at it and created a new model so that we could continue, reaching out to partners and identifying donors and volunteers.

Then Chef Holt [from Manna Restaurant at 683 Northland] got a hold of me and said, “I want in.” We got him to do the grocery shopping in bulk, got partners like Stephanie Simeon from Heart of the City to reach out to banks and foundations and raised nearly $40,000, got some volunteers to come back to pack groceries at Northland and to deliver to seniors, got partners and we started sending seniors food again, including hot meals from Manna, which was able to go back to work and fulfill their requirements for the Paycheck Protection Program.

So now there’s this new avenue I’ve been working on throughout the pandemic, linking the church to the community and development, providing a service that’s impactful.

What’s coming up in the near future at Northland and how can folks get involved with your work overall?

We are excited to have the Albright-Knox at 612 Northland now – we’re currently doing  a chalk walk, with Albright-Knox leading a community engagement initiative with the neighborhood kids doing chalk in front of their homes, an opportunity for them to express their feelings and thoughts of social justice through a mural or some type of art on sidewalks in front of their house.

Anyone interested in enrolling at the Workforce Training Center can see an advisor to register or get more information by calling Lionel at 716-436-3229.

And if anyone wants to participate in Journey Church they can get in touch with me at 716-202-0595. We’re doing some cleanups with the Tool Library and have a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. We are a community-engaged church.