When WEDI Buffalo needs help, it looks to Buffalo State students. WEDI—the Westminster Economic Development Initiative Inc.—is located on Grant Street. Its mission is to “provide business and educational opportunities for the people of the West Side.”
Michael Holland, a Buffalo State history major who graduates this weekend, has been an intern at WEDI this semester. “He’s been terrific,” said John McKeone, WEDI’s economic development director. “We need interns to be independent self-starters, and Mike really is doing a terrific job.” Ben Bissell, executive director of WEDI and a Buffalo State alumnus himself, said, “It’s awesome to have Buffalo State nearby as a resource.”
For Holland, the internship is an opportunity to build on research he did earlier as part of a project to study historical materials and write about them effectively. He was interested in gentrification, so he decided to study the West Side. He discovered that the National Housing Act of 1949, intended to revitalize America’s cities, sometimes failed. He said, “Buffalo’s West Side is a prime example of how ill-advised political decisions coupled with poor urban planning schemes can uproot an identity and reduce a uniquely vibrant neighborhood to a relic of the past.”
McKeone will graduate Saturday with a master’s in applied economics. He said that one of the critical areas for development in the Grant Street corridor is the revitalization of commercial property, which has been lost over the years for a variety of reasons.
“When we started looking for properties for clients, we came up against a brick wall,” said McKeone. “We need more commercial space. The commercial property is here in the business corridor, but has been turned into residential space, or it is simply not commercially functional.”
So WEDI started a project to seek out property that was built as commercial property and get it back in business. Holland became a member of the project’s team. Working with a commercial realtor and a UB graduate student studying urban planning, Holland’s role is to compile a database of such spaces. He’s developing an eye for the characteristics of one-time commercial buildings, such as the location and size of doorways and windows. The goal, Holland and McKeone both emphasized, is not to gentrify the neighborhood. Instead, the goal is enable neighborhood entrepreneurs to start the businesses that will stabilize and energize the neighborhood.
“We have to create a way to help develop commercial spaces that work for the clients we microfinance,” said McKeone. “And we hope to come up with a commercially oriented design guide, based on historical precedent, for commercial properties to enhance the neighborhood’s commercial viability.”
“What I like about this project,” said Holland, “is that WEDI really works with the people who live here to help them meet their own goals.”
Working at a grassroots organization with close ties to the neighborhood it serves has given Holland some important insights. “Individual voices aren’t loud, but collective voices are strong,” he said. “I’ve learned that there are people who truly care, and that grassroots organizations can really make a difference.”
Photo: Joe Cascio
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