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$500 million pledged to develop Buffalo's Fruit Belt neighborhood

Posted at 10:39 PM, Feb 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 10:19:03-05
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A Buffalo pastor is getting some big recognition for a project 17 years in the making.

Pastor Michael Chapman of St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street has been named the chair of economic development for the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Incorporated.

He will use his $500 million economic development plan for Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood as the model project for the organization’s more than 1,200 churches globally.

Any church that is hoping to use money to build up their community will go through the headquarters that are planned for the Queen City.

“We’re setting up an international office in the fruit belt, it’ll have staff, and it’ll be centralized in the Fruit Belt,” said Pastor Chapman.

Chapman and his First Lady, Ina, have been working for the better part of two decades on a plan to infuse half a billion dollars into a neighborhood that is fighting gentrification while also in desperate need of improvement.

“Whatever developers are coming in, they won’t be able to be what we’re trying to do in this community, because our heart is for this community,” said the First Lady who, along with pastor Chapman, grew up in this neighborhood.

Pastor Chapman says the entire reason he has been working through phases of this project is to stop gentrification.

Senior business consultant Michael Norwood, Senior says the church owns the majority of the neighborhood, which it has spent decades purchasing piece by piece from the city.

“You’re talking about as much as 60 percent ownership of land that’s in the Fruit Belt.”

Chapman says when the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus was in its planning stages, St. John was right there, too.

“You can’t have a world class medical campus if you don’t have a world class neighborhood.”

Norwood says the planners originally wanted to turn the open lots in the area to parking lots, but Chapman stepped in and pledged assets to develop the neighborhood instead.

“We have 15.1 acres of the most valuable land anywhere in Western New York.”

Now, the church says it owns a 45-acres of property in and around the medical campus.

It’s called the “St. John Gethsemane Village Campus” and features a hospice facility, market-rate and low-income apartments, townhomes, a family center and business hub, two churches, senior living, a daycare facility, and a youth center.

“Everything is 100 percent occupied,” said Norwood. “This property is the most valuable property in Western New York.”

And the pastor says he’s not stopping with the church’s plans, but he and his wife have visited all the block clubs in the district to see if they needed money for projects.

“We [told them] we would develop it for them at no cost.”

The pastor made a “vow of poverty” 16 years ago, he said. He has not pocketed a developers fee for any of the construction work he’s had a hand in — instead he says he puts the fee towards financial assistance programs.

But where is the money for a $500 million Fruit Belt vision coming from?

“We have $60 million on the ground, we don’t have to go look for it,” said Chapman.

The church says it’s sitting on $60 million in assets with revenue between $6-8 million each year from its rental properties.

It is leveraging those assets to secure more state funding along with private grants from various sources to fund its projects.

The next project is renovating the entire McCarley Gardens apartment property — it’ll cost more than $50 million and if the funding comes through, this will be the largest development project the east side has ever seen.

Developers Sinatra & Company Real Estate and Chapman say they are sending applications for this project soon and hope to break ground late spring - early summer if the money comes through.

Chapman is already preparing for what he hopes is a successful project being financed… coming off a $16.3 million townhouse development project that was just wrapped up in the neighborhood.

The developers have bridge lenders in place in case the state application for funds is denied.

“We did it with 60 percent minority participation,” Chapman said about the townhouses.

The church is actively seeking all, but especially minority skilled laborers to fill jobs in the McCarley project - it’s a reinvestment in the City of Buffalo’s urban core.

Pastor Chapman wants people in his neighborhood to help re-build it, and he hires and trains them so they’re able.

“We’d figure out what the young people did [know how to] do…and we would vet them, and we would take a chance on them,” said the First Lady.

The pastor added: “we have our own Human Resources. When we trained the we didn’t have to send them to someone else. Someone else might see a two-year gap and say ‘where have you been for two years?’ They’ve been in jail. We know they’ve been in jail - we live down here!”

“So we say, ‘before you first get into more trouble, get over here and start sweeping this construction site’,” stated the First Lady.

Developers say this project will bring hundreds of jobs in: construction, small business, health and wellness, energy efficiency, and entrepreneurial training.

“It needs to be out of — if nothing else — hope for the children, for the families to know that something is going on to benefit you in your community,” said the First Lady. “And black folks are doing it,” finished the pastor.

7 Eyewitness News will continue to follow this development and bring details as each phase unfolds.

People who are interested in jobs can go to the church’s human resources department at 833 Michigan Avenue, or call 716-856-0029 ext. 229