Upstate economy slowing even before virus, says M&T’s Keith

The Upstate New York economy was already showing signs of a slowdown before the pandemic showed up.

M&T Bank’s economist Gary Keith had prepared a presentation on the Upstate New York economy for for Upstate Capital members in Buffalo Thursday night, but he ended up tweaking his remarks to include the changing scenario caused by coronavirus and the sometimes panicky reaction to it.

“Until we get past the fear, this is uncharted waters,” Keith said in his presentation at Big Ditch Brewing Co. in downtown Buffalo.

Attendance at the event was likely affected by health concerns, said Upstate Capital’s executive director, Noa Simons. Though about 40 people were expected, approximately 15 showed up. Friday morning Simons issued a notice saying additional Upstate Capital programs this spring would be rescheduled or offered virtually as a precaution.

Thursday night Keith said that with such uncertain conditions, more than half of M&T’s Commercial customers are having trouble planning.

“The thing that’s kept the economy humming has been the consumer,” Keith said. “If we start to see some backsliding in employment, that’s going to resonate in confidence, some actual spending. If we’re going to start to see now that consumers can’t go shopping, won’t go shopping and will keep their wallets and purses at home, that has implications that are obviously still playing out.”

Economists had been saying that the declines or flattening of economic growth in recent months were nothing unusual and could be overcome, Keith said, but that was before the pandemic.

“There’s probably well over a 50 percent chance now in my opinion that we’re going to see that recession this year,” Keith said, noting that other economic prognosticators’ predictions are ranging  between less than 50 percent chance up to 80 percent chance. “If we get another week like we’ve seen, a short-term downturn is inevitable.”

Keith  doesn’t support a payroll tax holiday, which is one of the measures President Donald Trump is suggesting to prevent a coronavirus-related financial crisis. The measure would be a quick way to get money into the hands of people who live paycheck-by-paycheck, he said, but “for the upper middle class and higher, I suspect it would not be as stimulative” because the extra cash would go into the bank instead of being spent.

He suggested providing relief for people who lose their jobs due to a crisis.

“Getting money into people’s hands is critical,” he said, “not so much the bailouts for industries at his point.”

The Federal Reserve is limited in what it can do now, compared to the 2008 recession, Keith said, because interest rates in lending are already so low there is little room to lower them more.

As for the Upstate economy before this health issue arrived, the previous five quarters showed slowing.

Keith said the issue keeping him up at night is a stagnating or dwindling population and labor force across Upstate.

“It’s hard to grow your economy if your workforce is shrinking,” Keith said. Upstate has been wringing its collective hands for some years over a “brain drain” of young adults who are leaving instead of setting down roots. Statistics show, however, that the youngest adult population is now growing but that growth can’t make up for the decline in people who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

These people are in the middle of their careers, Keith, said, but as one industry declines and something different grows, they’re not necessarily making the jump and therefore are forced to become “economic migrants.” And, they take their kids with them.

Keith focused his examples on the Buffalo area, with a chart showing the nation’s working-age population has increased 3.1 percent, but the Buffalo-Niagara area is down 2.6 percent. His chart showed an even bigger decline in the Rochester area, at 3.9 percent.

Similarly, growth in gross domestic product in 2019 was 2.3 percent in all metro areas across the country, compared to 1 percent in the Buffalo-Niagara region and seven-tenths of a percent in Rochester.

“We underperformed, but we grew,” Keith said.

The cause may have to do with upstate communities not being seen as vibrant or moving quickly enough into new economies.

“People come for opportunity. That to me is bigger than taxes or cost of living,” Keith said.

The economist didn’t offer any solutions to the population and workforce issue, but said it’s a critical issue that needs to be solved.

“Until we get that population workforce issue front and center and start to make a dent in it, we have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake,” Keith said.

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Bills legend Kyle Williams not surprised by strong start

scottteaser-215x160Kyle Williams hasn’t had any second thoughts about his decision to retire last December. Sure, it would have been a blast to be a part of the Buffalo Bills’ 5-2—soon to be 6-2—start on their way to a likely playoff berth. But the defensive tackle who earned six Pro Bowl invitations during his 13-year NFL career hasn’t once contemplated picking up the phone and asking Coach Sean McDermott for his old job back.

See, Williams is quite content where he is. The transformation from player to fan has gone as smoothly as he thought it would. Ten months after taking that victory lap around New Era Field a final time, Williams finds himself in a happy place. He knew back then it was the right time to call it a career and spend more time with his wife and their five kids, ranging in age from four to 13. And he made that decision fully aware of the football fun he was about to miss. He was convinced 2019 was going to be a launch season, given the mix of talented veterans and young players on Buffalo’s roster.

“I got to see how things were developing from inside that locker room and on the field every practice and every game, so this great start is hardly unexpected to me,’’ said Williams, who will headline the 30th Ben Giambrone Compeer Rochester Sports Luncheon on November 7 at the Joseph Floreano Riverside Convention Center. (Tickets still remain.) “But the timing was right for me, and I can honestly say there hasn’t been a moment when I’ve questioned my decision.”

Many athletes struggle with the transition from the arena to real life. Depression often sets in once the competition ends for good and the cheers grow silent. But that hasn’t been the case with Williams, who at age 36 is enjoying his post-playing days as he ponders his next career. He experienced closure and is ready to move on. Being able to leave the game on his own terms has made that journey easier.

“I was really blessed in that respect because the truth is that most guys are told by the game when to leave,’’ he said. “I’m probably among the one percent who spent 13 years in pro football and was able to leave while the getting was good. I think of my friend and longtime teammate, Eric Wood. He suffered that unexpected neck injury and couldn’t play again. He was forced to walk away several years before he wanted to. And, sadly, his situation is the norm rather than the exception.”

Williams also is at peace with his decision because he gave it his all, whether it was in the weight room or film room or on the field for practices and games.

“I have no regrets,’’ said the man who finished with 48 sacks, most in franchise history by a tackle. “I don’t look back and say, ‘Well, if only I had done this’ or ‘if only I had done that.’ That’s something I’ve tried to get across to guys I played with and the young guys just starting out. Don’t leave anything for chance. Give it your best every rep, so that when it’s over, you can look yourself in the mirror and say you didn’t cheat yourself or your teammates or your coaches.”

That all-out, all-the-time approach is one of the things that endeared Williams to Buffalo fans. They admired him even more because he never allowed the mediocrity around him to drag him down. Through 10 losing seasons and more coaches and roster makeovers than he cares to remember, Williams continued to play hard. Bills Mafia loved him for that, and he loved the passion they showed the team, particularly during the lean times. “Here’s this kid from Louisiana, who shows up back in 2006, and there’s an October snowstorm that dumps about two feet of snow on Orchard Park, and I get to the stadium for a game, and the fans are acting as if it’s 70 degrees,’’ Williams said. “And that can’t help but pump me and my teammates up. You’re looking at them, giving their all despite the snow and the losses, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, if they are going to give that kind of effort to support us, then I surely can give an honest effort, too.’ I recognized that passion in them not long after I showed up in Buffalo, and I think they saw it in me, too. We were kindred spirits. There are no accidents in life. That was where I was meant to be.”

Fortunately, for Williams, he didn’t have to leave the Bills cold turkey after last season. McDermott has had him mentor several young players during training camp and some regular-season practices. It’s been a way for the man who may become a coach someday to stay connected to the team. And it’s only reinforced those beliefs that something special is unfolding.

From his first conversation with McDermott before the 2017 season, he was convinced the Bills had finally hired the right head coach. And Williams’ interactions with Josh Allen during the quarterback’s rookie season a year later has him believing Buffalo has finally found a signal caller worthy of succeeding the legendary Jim Kelly. “A lot of people will talk about Josh’s physical skills—his great arm, his athleticism, his size—and that’s all impressive,’’ Williams said. “But the thing that struck me from the git-go was his leadership skill. Josh is a connector of people. People gravitate to him. He’s the type of guy who will go out of his way in the locker room to seek out the guys who might be introverts and get them involved, make them feel like vital parts of the whole.”

In that respect, he is similar to Williams, who became a beloved and trusted confidant in the Bills locker room. There’s another trait the former fifth-round pick from Louisiana State University shares with Allen: toughness. Though, like many, Williams hopes Josh will become more judicious about trying to run over defenders. “You are walking on a razor’s edge there, between being tough and being foolish,’’ he said. “Josh is a big, strong, fast athlete, and you want to make sure he utilizes those attributes wisely. There are times when a tough, physical play is called for, depending on the situation of the game. And there’s no question that when Josh is taking on someone to pick up a first down or a touchdown, that physicality can become infectious. His teammates on both sides of the ball will say, “Well, if he is willing to lay his body on the line, I can, too.’ But’s he’s got to be smart. Don’t put yourself in position to turn the ball over or get hurt.’’

There has been talk in recent weeks about how Tom Brady may be leaving the New England Patriots or even calling it quits after this season. Such talk, obviously, gets Bills fans stoked because Brady has owned Buffalo, and the NFL, for that matter, for nearly two decades. Williams, though, isn’t putting much stock into those rumors. “Tom’s still playing at such a high level at age 42, and the Patriots are undefeated and contending for yet another Super Bowl run,’’ he said. “I don’t know of anyone who loves the game and the competition more than Tom does. I don’t care if his contract is up or if his house in Boston is for sale. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Although done playing, Williams will be back on the field at New Era within the next few years, hearing the cheers once more. A space on the Wall of Fame will be reserved for this overachiever. He may have been born and bred in the Bayou, and continue to live there today, but we know and he knows better—Kyle Williams will always be a Buffalonian.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

Retail is key to downtown development, but it’s changing

Traffic entering the city from Interstate 490 moves down Clinton Avenue. Rochester’s downtown is changing, and its approach to retail may be changing as well. (Photo by Dick Moss)
Traffic entering the city from Interstate 490 moves down Clinton Avenue. Rochester’s downtown is changing, and its approach to retail may be changing as well. (Photo by Dick Moss)

In the 1970s and early 1980s, New York City’s Bryant Park was a dangerous place to be.

Whether people were walking through the park next to the New York Public Library, or along the streets nearby, they risked becoming victim to purse snatchings and more violent crimes.

Today, Bryant Park is crowded with people who live and work in the city, visiting suburbanites and tourists — lots of tourists. The rip-off stores full of souvenir tchotchkes that dotted the nearby streets have been replaced by restaurants and more restaurants, many of them catering to the tastes and budgets of millennials, others offer upscale fare.  The park has a year full of programming, from open-air opera and author lectures in warmer weather to kiosks offering holiday shopping and an ice rink for nine weeks in the winter.

“Bryant Park went from dangerous and depressing and everything broken and graffiti to, really, the town center for Midtown Manhattan,” said Dan Biederman, the man who has managed the park for 40 years and headed neighboring business improvement districts. He has also become a national expert on urban redevelopment.

Sure, you say, that’s New York City, with the foot traffic and spending money of eight million residents, and tourist dollars out the wazoo. Could something like that happen in Rochester, with a metropolitan statistical area of less than one-eighth the size of New York City’s?

Biederman, whose second job is consulting on redevelopment of urban spaces around the country, has seen transformations similar to Bryant Park’s on a smaller scale in places including Greensboro, NC; Green Bay, Wisc. and nearby Buffalo. He admits, though, that he has never set foot in Rochester.

In each of those other cities’ cases, a business improvement district worked with an open space to create a new urban magnet. The new attractions are taking over the role in the social fabric of communities that once were occupied by downtown shopping districts with long-gone department stores. These new spaces offer plenty to eat, loads to drink and experiences, rather than the opportunity to shop for a sweater for your aunt, or a record album for your brother. Often, though, they do include some shopping, even if it’s on a seasonal basis.

Biederman said Greensboro capitalized on its history of the civil rights movement and created a civil rights museum in the former Woolworth’s that had been the site of the first lunch-counter protests.  This was part of a larger re-do of Greensboro’s Elm Street.

Green Bay’s suburb of Ashwaubenon included a formerly run-down parking area adjacent to the famed Lambeau Field of the Green Bay Packers. Biederman was involved in renovating the land into a park that provides programming for the nearly 350 days a year that the Packers aren’t playing. There’s a slope for tubing, participatory art events, and festivals.

In recent years, Buffalo focused its attention on a long-ignored Erie Canal waterfront in Buffalo, creating Canalside.

“It’s slow, but there are restaurants there that have started up, a hotel. People who were skeptical about Buffalo — people are coming back.” Biederman said. Canadians are visiting downtown Buffalo rather than the other way around, he said.

While these types of transformations may seem magical in hindsight, the story Biederman tells about Bryant Park suggests there was lots of cooperation and attention to detail.

New York City police commissioners directed enforcement to curtail violence in the area. Municipal services stepped up their game, too. Landlords were having trouble renting retail spaces because of the general environment.

“What was making it hard for owners to lease were conditions: lots of litter, the smell of urine, unserved homeless people,” Biederman said. The business district and its partners started going after those “broken windows” types of problems one at a time.

“Once all of those were taken care of, the public was on the street much more. It was easier to rent retail space,” he said. Despite the climate of retail today, which is challenging because of online sales, Biederman said this key area in Manhattan is thriving.

In downtown Rochester, many of the so-called broken windows have already been addressed, but retail isn’t flocking to the area. Some downtown mavens point to a resurgence of restaurants and coffee shops, but recently several restaurants closed, too. Talks on what to do with the Parcel 5, the open area created by the demolition of Midtown Plaza, appear to be stalled.

But there’s movement afoot nearby.

Across East Main Street stands Sibley Square, the project encompassing the former department store and office tower that was part of Rochester’s retail heyday. The office tower was remade into apartments, and today 95 percent of Sibley Square’s 175 apartments are occupied, says Ken Greene, asset manager for WinnCompanies, which is redeveloping the space.

Greene says downtown Rochester has 80,000 people a day with whom he’s trying to connect.

“There’s three populations we’re looking at:  Who lives downtown and what do they need? Who works downtown, and what do they need? And who’s traveling and transferring at the bus station and what do they need?” he said.  Sibley Square aims to satisfy all those needs, whether it’s lunch for less than a ten spot, or a lead on a new occupation.

The first floor of the square, which is devoted to retail and services, has one bank branch and soon will welcome another, Greene said. It also includes two art galleries, one run by Rochester Institute of Technology, a senior services agency and a dental clinic. Expected soon is the Kitchen Commissary, a sort of culinary incubator run by Rochester Downtown Development Corp., which plans to open next spring. Next to the commissary is space Sibley Square has reserved for a mercantile or a small grocery store with fresh produce and meat as well as packaged goods.

The building also houses a day care, and is working with a proposed high school for adults who need to complete requirements for their high school diploma. A co-working space is in the building and will soon expand to a different floor, Green said.

NextCorps, the technology incubator, is on the building’s sixth floor, with 70 fledgling tech startups.

“When I think about the building, reactivating the core, it’s a significant (boon) to Downtown Rochester,” Greene said.

None of the individual features at Sibley Square are unique, Greene notes.
“Everything we’ve done at Sibley’s is being done somewhere else. There are high schools for adults in 60 locations around the country,” he said. Tech incubators, kitchen incubators, educational and art facilities, restaurants and marketplaces all exist elsewhere.

Sibley’s unique take?

“I have not seen other places in the country that have taken all of these things and have housed them in one building,” Greene said.

When the redevelopment is complete, he said, “It will change the inner city for decades.”

Sibley Square and Bryant Park both illustrate a popular theory that retail has moved more toward experiential offerings rather than traditional retail. Some downtown theorists suggest the idea that a critical mass of people living and working downtown will cause retail to return in spades is not viable anymore, given the changes in consumption patterns.

Jaymes T. Keenan, a retail specialist with the Rochester office of CBRE, a real estate services company, isn’t quite ready to give up on that theory yet.

“Retail follows people. Retail is never going to be the first one in,” Keenan said. He thinks the downtown population needs to be close to 10,000 before substantial retail returns. It’s now at more than 7,000 with housing for another 3,000 planned or underway.

Keenan is, however, willing to redefine what retail is.

CBRE is now leasing 111 apartments in the newly built The Nathaniel at South Avenue and Court Street. The company is also looking for a retail tenant to occupy 4,000 square feet on the ground floor.

“There is always going to be a need for experiential retail,” Keenan said. “We’ll move away from hard goods or the amount of hard goods that are sold in retail space. It’s an evolution of the definition of what retail is.”

And as for experiential retail, he means stores or services that can’t be replicated by online or delivery shopping services. You have to be there to really experience it: boutique fitness places, for instance, or coffee shops like the one a stone’s throw from The Nathaniel, Fuego Coffee.  Besides the off-line nature of these places, Keenan said, they offer something else: a sense of community.

People who visit Fuego, Keenan said, are “likely going for a cup of coffee, but it’s not just about going there and getting coffee. It’s about finding a community.”

This kind of community building starts downtown, because that’s the heart of any community, he said. He spots all kinds of positive signs, from the filling in of the Inner Loop, to the proliferation of coffee shops, for downtown.

But unlike the era when department stores dominated downtown Rochester, the center city now has people who both live and work downtown.

Some residential tenants of the Metropolitan, for instance, work for Datto, the cyber security service provider, in the same building.

“They’re here 24 hours a day. That’s a new thing for us,” Keenan said.

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Bill Gray’s closes sole Buffalo location

Bill Gray’s no longer has an outpost in the Buffalo area.

The chain of hamburger restaurants closed its Clarence location last week, after deciding not to renew the lease for the restaurant.

Jon Gonzalez, vice president of finance for Bill Gray’s, said though the restaurant was in Clarence for about 15 years, brand awareness in Buffalo was hard to maintain with just a single restaurant. Bill Gray’s also operated a food court restaurant in the Boulevard Mall in Amherst, but the food court there had recently closed, too.

“It’s difficult supporting one store” at a distance from the company’s other stores, Gonzalez said.

The 12-15 employees at the Clarence location have been offered jobs in Rochester-area restaurants, Gonzalez said, but it wasn’t clear whether any were willing to move to Rochester to continue working with the company.

No other Bill Gray’s restaurants are slated to close, Gonzalez said, and the company just opened a new restaurant in the Port of Rochester building last month.

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While Brighton waits, Whole Foods marches on in Buffalo

When Whole Foods announced, with the Daniele Family Cos., that it was planning to open a grocery store in Brighton, the plan was to open one in the Buffalo area at the same time – 2017.

Whole Foods has been open in the Buffalo areas for more than a year. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
Whole Foods has been open in the Buffalo area for more than a year. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

Today, the Buffalo store has been open for more than a year, but Rochester’s store is still on the drawing board, stalled by lengthy reviews of the plans caused by opposition and now by a lawsuit. After eight public hearings, the town has granted its permission; demolition and building permits wait for resolution of the suit.

“If not for all the opposition and the lawsuits, Whole Foods would have been open already and Rochester would have had one more choice,” said Danny J. Daniele, co-owner and president of Daniele Family Cos. Much of the opposition focused on potential increases in traffic on an already busy Monroe Avenue.

If the Daniele Family, the project’s developers, wins its day in court, the company will demolish its former Mario’s restaurant and Clover Lanes buildings to make room for a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods grocery store, a drive-through Starbucks and a cluster of about a dozen other businesses. The other businesses include, according to Daniele, high-end boutiques, fresh concept eateries, and pampering services. He says he can’t divulge the tenants’ names until 90 days before they take possession of the properties.

The project’s centerpiece will be the Whole Foods grocery store, an outpost of a highly regarded chain of stores that is represented in Upstate New York only in Buffalo and Albany so far. Though Wegmans Food Markets Inc. staunchly denies it, Danny Daniele insists the locally grown grocery chain is financing opposition to prevent its competitor from getting a foothold in the Rochester market. Wegmans did send a letter to the town with concerns about traffic, safety and other impacts of the proposed development.

Lockers for Amazon packages are discreetly tucked in the grocery cart area. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
Lockers for Amazon packages are discreetly tucked in the grocery cart area. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

With 21 stores in the Rochester area, Wegmans expects to pass the 100-store mark in 2019 with new stores opening in Brooklyn, Virginia Beach, Va., and Raleigh, N.C. Whole Foods, meanwhile, already has nearly 500 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

What would Whole Foods be like? We visited the store in Buffalo recently to get an idea.

Much like the Brighton site, the Whole Foods is in an upscale suburb of Buffalo, located on the commercial strip of Amherst’s Sheridan Drive and adjacent to a residential neighborhood. The site is actually in the parking lot of what used to be a large mall, which now contains some non-retail tenants.

The 50,000-square-foot grocery store – the same size that’s proposed for Brighton – has three entrances. One leads to a vestibule for shopping carts, parked in rows in front of an Amazon locker for mail-order package pickups. The locker is 12 to 15 feet long and about 6 feet tall, providing a place for people to have packages delivered if they don’t want to risk having something snatched off their stoops.

Whole Food's bulk food section features Dylan's Candy Bar. Photo by DIana Louise Carter.
Whole Food’s bulk food section features Dylan’s Candy Bar. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

After passing by the carts, visitors enter an attractive produce area, with vegetables and fruits neatly laid out in wooden bins. The bulk food section is immediately adjacent, with nationally known hard candies, and grind-your-own peanut butter or almond butter.

Much of what Whole Foods offers will seem familiar to Wegmans regulars – store branded items alongside national brands of groceries, prepared food bars and seating in the store where the foods can be eaten after you check out at the coffee bar. Shoppers can get help at counters for deli, bakery, sushi, and pizza, much like Wegmans. But instead of subs, this store offers ramen bowls.

A second entrance brings shoppers into the store where they have immediate access to the prepared food counters and to Bar 1818, described as offering locally sourced beer on tap, pool, burgers and shakes. A third entrance leads directly into the pub and restaurant. On a recent weekday, Bar 1818 seemed to be attracting neighboring workers on their lunch hour.

Some features that appear to be unique to Whole Foods are skylights in the exposed ceiling. The entire front of the store consists of glass windows, allowing in natural light even on a typically gray day in Western New York. There’s a bocce court at the front of the store, though no one was playing when we visited.

If Whole Foods succeeds in opening a store in Rochester, it’s likely there will be a bowling lane or two instead of a bocce court. Daniele said at Whole Foods’ request, the surfaces of two bowling lanes from Clover Lanes were reserved for the décor of the planned store.

But unless Whole Foods asks for additional permissions from the town, the proposed Rochester Whole Foods would not have any Amazon lockers (Amazon bought Whole Foods since the time the project was proposed in 2015), special features like a bocce court or a bowling lane, or an attached restaurant.

Daniele noted some differences between the planned Brighton store and the store in suburban Buffalo. The Daniele redevelopment plan is much smaller, he said: 84,000 square feet compared to a mall that once contained 250,000 square feet of retail space. And the supermarket is just a portion of the space.

The main entrance at the Buffalo Whole Foods store. Photo by Diana Louise Carter.
The main entrance at the Buffalo Whole Foods store. (Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

“To give some perspective, the Wegmans stores are usually over 125,000 square feet, meaning you could fit two full-size Whole Foods stores inside the Pittsford Wegmans and still have room left over to squeeze a Cheesecake Factory in there,” he said.

Indeed the business models are different, with Whole Foods operating stores less than half the size of the typical Wegmans supermarket. Both chains step out of the typical grocery store model to carry clothing and equipment for practicing yoga, but Wegmans by and large has more offerings across the board and appeals to a broader range of price points.

Daniele has no timeline for the Brighton project to move forward. He said injunctions related to opposition have prevented the company from even repairing the buildings that  have been closed now for two years.

“If the lawsuit disappears, we would be able to start demolition next week and construction thereafter,” Daniele said. Given the go-ahead, the project could be built in 10 to 14 months he said.

Town Supervisor William Moehle said the town loses out on several fronts as the waiting continues, from the walking trail that the developers would build as part of the incentive zoning package for the project, to the tax dollars – some $400,000 annually – created by the commerce, to new shopping available even on foot.

“I understand that people want to have the legal issues resolved before they make the investment. What that means is this enhancement to our tax base and the safety improvements and the assets of the trail are also delayed,” Moehle said.

The  lengthy delay will not deter the Daniele Family Cos. from the project, Daniele said.

“Our intent is to continue forward with what we believe is a new and fresh development that would breathe some new life into this corridor,” he said.

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Creative entrepreneurs offer success stories to students

The Buffalo Bills are among the clients of VSP Graphic Group, which started out making vinyl car wraps. (Provided)
The Buffalo Bills are among the clients of VSP Graphic Group, which started out making vinyl car wraps. (Provided)

Trace George saved up time off from his job in IT for a manufacturer so he could spend Monday mornings stalking the parking lot at a Home Depot.

The owner of VSP Graphic Group, which now provides all the branding “eye candy” for the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, and a host of other professional and collegiate teams, started his business in Buffalo by focusing on eye-catching vinyl car wraps.  A workshop speaker at the Genesee Community College’s Creativity Conference in Batavia last week, (Wednesday, Feb. 28), George explained how he used creative tactics to build his business from sideline to a national success.

“What is that pond you want to fish in and what is that lure you’re going to use?” he asked. During one of his frequent visits to Home Depot for projects in his own home he noticed all the independent contractors who were also coming, usually every Monday morning. So Home Depot became his pond at first.

“They need branding,” he told himself. “I’m going to be the contractor sign guy.”

His lure? His own colorfully decorated pickup truck. George parked the vehicle in the contractors-only area for three hours each Monday morning, tipping the parking lot attendant $20 to look the other way. Then he went to a restaurant that provided a view of his truck, and he tipped a waitress $20 to serve him coffee and save his seat for three hours.

Every time a contractor stopped to admire the branding on the truck, George scooted out of the restaurant to reel in the prospect. The result was $58,000 in sales in just three months, working just three hours a week. That came to $1,611 an hour.

“Be creative in how you build your business,” George told the audience of mostly students, college staff and potential entrepreneurs.

While VSP still does car wraps — 2,400 a year —it has diversified and shifted from doing 95 percent of its business directly with consumers in 1995 to 96 percent of its business with other businesses in 2017.
While VSP still does car wraps — 2,400 a year —it has diversified and shifted from doing 95 percent of its business directly with consumers in 1995 to 96 percent of its business with other businesses in 2017.

While VSP still does car wraps — 2,400 a year —it has diversified widely. “Our company has taken a whole new direction in athletic branding,” George said. The company now has offices on both coasts and shifted from doing 95 percent of its business directly with consumers in 1995 to 96 percent of its business with other businesses in 2017.

Sports has been a huge part of the business, but VSP also covered 92,000 square feet of wall surfaces at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, does virtually all the visual branding at the Oscars ceremony for CBS Viacom, and the product display branding for Fisher Price and Scott’s Lawn.

This week’s event at GCCC was the fifth creativity conference and the first to focus on entrepreneurship, kicking off a year of events related to that topic.

“We believe if we arm our students with that skill, it will make them more of an asset to an organization,” said Lina LaMattina, a business professor at GCC who teaches a business course in creativity.  By bringing in speakers who have started their own business, LaMattina said, the college hoped “to make entrepreneurship something that’s more approachable and accessible.”

Several speakers described themselves as “accidental entrepreneurs,” who came up with the idea for their business almost by happenstance, but then followed up with passion and hard work. Such was the case for Three Heads Brewing in Rochester, where a group of neighborhood drinking buddies started sampling West Coast regional beers and then tried brewing their own beer at home. Geoff Dale, one of the “three heads,” said their home brews started attracting more fans than the West Coast beers they shared with their friends. They submitted five homemade beers to a brewing competition in Buffalo about a decade ago, walking away with three gold medals and a bronze and the assurance that what they were doing could be a successful business.

Those early group experiences helped shape the company’s continuing emphasis on community, Dale said. “Beer to me is a communal drink.” He can’t recall attending a single concert where beer wasn’t part of the experience, he said. “The idea is always to tie in fun with our beer.”

Featuring Rochester images and names on the beer bottle labels has been a helpful selling point, Dale said, as former Rochesterians like to boost their hometown by having these products shipped to them.

Dale co-presented with Leslie Ward, founder of the Lovin’ Cup at RIT’s Park Point development. Ward went to college to become an English teacher, but then found organizing events and marketing, first for nonprofits and then restaurants, was more her style.

When the Park Point development became available, the native of Henrietta decided to pitch a locally operated restaurant and music venue.

“This town deserves something that’s organic and true,” she said. Her passion convinced family members and other investors to back her idea, using a name she thought up years before. No one knew what Lovin’ Cup meant at first, but the same was true when Starbucks came onto the scene, she said.

“At the beginning it was throwing events, making them awesome and not even making money off the tickets, just so people would come back,” Ward said.

Even today, with Lovin’ Cup established as a live-music venue and restaurant, and after two expansions, Ward spends 10 hours a week organizing events, such as its annual voice competition, and promoting them on social media.

Both Dale and Ward said they have had to change how they do business to accommodate customer preferences. Lovin’ Cup launched with counter service only but quickly added servers when customers showed a preference for being waited on, Ward said. Similarly, there have been some wonderful beers that the owners of Three Heads love but had to abandon.

“If it doesn’t sell, kick it to the curb,” Dale said. “You  have to have an ego to open a business, but you have to leave it at the door once you open the business.”

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