Q&A: Robert Gioia

Robert Gioia is one of Western New York’s consummate insiders.

At present, he holds two key positions, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, Western New York’s largest philanthropic organization, and chairman of the Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp., responsible for developing Canalside and the Outer Harbor.

Gioia’s career has straddled the public and private sector. His family operated the Gioia Macaroni Co. and he was a principal with the Food Group of Strategic Investments and Holdings Inc. from 1992 to 2007. On the government side, he chaired the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority during its construction of the new airport terminal in Cheektowaga and the Western New York Health System, which resulted in a collaboration between the Erie County Medical Center, Kaleida Health and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine.

Gioia, 64, is a graduate of the University at Buffalo and has served on a number of community boards, including the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Roswell Park Cancer Institute and the Martin House Restoration Corp. 

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Gioia on March 25. A 4 minute, 55 second video clip featuring the highlights of that interview is posted above. The full 20 minute, 13 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, produced by Ivy Rivera, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: I’d like to start out by talking about Canalside, the foot of Main Street. There’s a lot of activity going on. Off camera you said that there’s 36 different projects, at some stage of development?

Gioia: Exactly.

Heaney: I think a lot of people, if you’re going to the hockey game or you’re driving through downtown, are looking at the Aud site. There’s a lot of construction equipment down there; when is the public going to have a reason to go there and hang out, and what are they going to find when they get there?

Gioia: We would say that there’s the opportunity to do that now, primarily during the warm weather months from May to September. Last year there were some 600 events, 600,000 people and lot of concerts, about 100,000 of those folks were concert goers …

Heaney: As we move away from the water, from what’s now a construction zone …

Gioia: Exactly. As we move away from the water, you’ll start to see some progress by the end of this calendar year, the winter of ’13.

Heaney: And what will be in place by then?

Gioia: You’ll see the historic canals should be opened, or close to being open, which will be refrigerated so you can bring your family down and skate. There will be kiosks, temporary restaurants and temporary buildings, until we get the final construction done, which will take several years. But, initially, there will be activity for the family and most folks, and young adults, to frequent the area year-round. And you’ll start to see it by the end of this year.

Heaney: The real critical mass – when it comes to the commercial development, and you start to see some permanent restaurants and other-type destinations – how many years away are we on that?

Gioia: I would say a year-and-a-half to two years.

Heaney: I had Larry Quinn on the program a couple months back, the former vice chairman of your agency. Larry seemed to think that the lease-up phase is going a little bit slower than you folks would have liked, or at least, what he had anticipated.

Gioia: I don’t know what Larry had anticipated. I know their lease-up space was going to be really spearheaded by the Bass Pro initiative. I don’t think anyone would have thought a year ago that you would have the Donovan Building almost up and open. It’ll be open by the end of this year with Phillips Lytle and a hotel. There will be restaurants in that. And then, a year-and-a-half or so later, Harbor Center – the Sabres development project. And I don’t think anyone would have thought that our little $50 million of investment on the historic blocks, and the beginning, and when we’re done with the Aud block by the end of this year, would stimulate $200 million worth of private investment.

So, I would say that most people will be very excited about the continuation of stuff happening, some of it a little bit slower than others. Some of it has to be planned. But, remember, to get to where we are, even today, was two years in planning. So, you’re going to start to see some stuff really come to completion.

Heaney: When will it be, more or less, a complete project down there? How many years off until, maybe not everything’s done but, for the most part, it’s a done deal.

Gioia: I would say it’s probably five years by the time you design the building that’s going to house Explore and More Museum, and whatever type of marketplace you’re going to have on the south Aud block, and restaurants that are going to accent that.

Jim, I can tell you that there doesn’t go a day that people don’t come in with some really exciting initiatives because of the activity that is happening down on Canalside. As a state agency, the governor has said to us, “We want you to be the spark that will drive private development.” And the two projects between the Sabres and Benderson, is a clear indication of that success, so far.

Heaney: Let’s talk the outer harbor, kind of like the final frontier, so to speak. And let me start out by asking about the marriage between your agency and the City of Buffalo.

For the viewers, just a little bit of history: The NFTA owns the property. It solicited RFPs asking for agencies or entities to come forward who would want to be in charge of developing that. The city came forward. Erie Harbor Canal Development Corporation came forward. I think there was a widely held opinion that it should be you folks, not the city – not so much because you guys are wonderful, but that the city has a pretty wretched reputation when it comes to getting things done of a development-nature. We can go from the fiasco of One Sunset to some of the other things with economic development to the difficulty the city’s Public Works Department has of getting even basic projects done such as Ellicott Street, which Investigative Post did a piece on a couple months ago, as a main thoroughfare through the medical campus that is still not done, years afterwards. Even a wading pool at Martin Luther King Park is years behind schedule.

So, when it was announced – I know I was surprised and I wasn’t the only one – there were a lot of people surprised that there appeared to be a shotgun marriage between Erie Harbor Canal Development Corporation and the City of Buffalo. Talk to me about how that came to be. Any concerns you have about having the city as a partner? And, maybe most importantly, where will the division of labor fall? What will you folks be in charge of? What will the city be in charge of? How’s it all going to fit together?

Gioia: OK, I’ll try and get to all of that. First and foremost, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation will take title to all the land, all some 400 acres from Gallagher Beach all the way up to the Seaway Pier. We will take title of that land. We would hope to be able to do that by the end of this year. You have to go through certain processes with the state, because it’s a state agency, evaluation, evaluations of the property, and the brownfield analysis, as well. It is our intention to sign an MOU and parcel off part of the responsibility of managing a portion of that with the city.

Heaney: What portions?

Gioia: That would be the Small Boat Harbor and Gallagher Beach. I think that’s heading south along the water.

Why the city? Well, there are certain core competencies here that I think we should take advantage of. The primary entity within that parcel is the Small Boat Harbor. The city currently is managing the Erie Basin Marina and they seem to be doing a job I think we can all be respectful of, and I think it seems to be a great activity, and a hub of activity for the city and the community. So, it would make sense. Why create more infrastructure when you currently have that infrastructure here?

We need to utilize the resources we have and, I think, even the most recent Buffalo News poll showed that the city does an OK job with stuff like plowing the streets, cutting the lawn, turning the lights on, etcetera. So, we said, “Why don’t we partner with you on that and you take the responsibility of that.” We’re in the midst of trying to finalize that. I’m confident that we will. If we can’t – we’ll take it all on ourselves and will find somebody else to do it.

It’s the last opportunity for us to connect with the water and I don’t think we need an eight-game stadium there. I’m not very supportive of it.

Heaney: But the real guts of the job is to develop several-hundred acres. By inference, you’re saying that that is going to fall to Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp?

Gioia: Yes, it is. And we’ve said, publicly, that we will use what’s referred to as the BOA – the Brownfield Opportunity Agreement – we will use that as guiding principles. We want to have a better understanding as to what is the make-up of the land. What is reasonable to expect of what we can do with the land? And, because of whatever environmental issues there may be, what does the public really want to see with this?

As complex as the land is, so are the opportunities that people want to see happen here – from a stadium to a park to a golf course. So, you have all kinds of opportunities and we want it to be a public process. It’s going to take a little while to run through that and also do the environmental  analysis, as well. So, we will use that as our guiding principles. Then, you’ve got two big, commercial buildings that could be revenue generators for the whole project.

Heaney: So, the guiding hand and the decision-maker when it comes to that process that you just played out is going to be exclusively Erie Harbor Development Corporation?

Gioia: It will be exclusively, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. The city will, clearly, have input into the decisions that are being made but, ultimately, it will be our land and we’ll decide what’s best for it.

Heaney: So, this isn’t anything the mayor can say, ‘yeah or neigh’ on, or the Common Council can say, ‘yeah or neigh’ on?

Gioia: Oh, I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t know if we’re going to agree on everything, but I think that …

Heaney: But, say that you guys come up with a master plan. Let me take it to an extreme. You guys come up with a master plan and your board votes on it. Is that the end of it? Or does it have to go before the Common Council and the mayor, as well, for their approval?

Gioia: I’m not a lawyer and I can’t really tell you who’s responsible. But, it would be our property and I think that we would certainly be able to guide what is best for that piece of property, our asset.

Heaney: Jordan Levy, your predecessor, was on here about a month-and-a-half, two months ago, said that his problem with the city getting involved is: Whenever the city gets involved, politics becomes front and center. You could have a real messy situation on your hands. Do you have a concern about that?

Gioia: I wouldn’t say that it’s a concern. We’re certainly aware that politics, because it is a public process, will play a role in it. You have the Common Council, who will want to have a say in it – they think it’s their land. The mayor will want to have a say in it. I would hope that we’re able to create the dialogue, and the opportunity for that dialogue, with an understanding that we need to move this ahead in a positive way. And, I would say that we’ve been able to do that. Erie Canal development has been able to do that with the Ohio Street Corridor, with the city; with the Parcel OH, with the city; with Gallagher Beach, with the city; with the Donovan Building, with the city; and, with the Webster Block, with the city. So, there’s a history here of us being able to work together.

While we may want to talk about, you know, the strikes that have been leveled against the administration and some of the things that they’ve done, I think when you think of what has happened with the Donovan Building and the Harbor Center, I think we all would have to say, ‘Those are two big plusses’, especially Harbor Center, with what the city’s done. And, second, I have to say this on behalf of my predecessor, Jordy: Clearly, the visionary to take it from the singular-item-issue of Bass Pro to what it is today. So, I’m the beneficiary of all his hard work and I can’t say enough about what he has laid in front of us to see what’s happening. Most of the stuff that you’re going to see this year is a result of his hard work.

Those that are underserved and underprivileged are really under tremendous pressure. One of the reasons is they don’t have a big voice in government.

Heaney: Your thoughts on the proposal to build a multi-purpose facility, anchored by a football stadium on the Outer Harbor? Which is kind of the 900-pound gorilla in the discussion. I know that, as an agency, you’re going to have to go through a big deliberation process and all that, but just as a citizen, as somebody who’s plugged in … some folks like Brian Higgins and Mark Poloncarz have had some not-so-nice things to say about the proposal. What’s your sense of its prospects, its strengths, its weaknesses?

Gioia: I’m not very positive about it. I don’t think it’s the right place at the right time. You talk about it as the outer boundary. It’s the last opportunity for us to connect with the water and I don’t think we need an eight-game stadium there. How do you get there? I’m not very supportive of it.

Heaney: You’re a thumbs down?

Gioia: Yes. I’m a thumbs down. Clearly. That’s not what the public is looking for. The public wants to be able to do what they do in California, or Maine, where you can walk along the water, you can bike along the water. That’s what this public is looking for.

Heaney: Let’s talk time frame in terms of when the public might start to see a critical mass on the Outer Harbor, where there will be enough things to do. Now you can go to Dug’s Dive, you can go to here, you can go there, but they’re kind of still isolated spot. When do you think enough will start to pull itself together that it will become a destination?

Gioia: I think you’ll start to see, within a year’s time, things starting to formulate and percolate, if you will. You’ll see Dug’s Dive – there’s talk about expanding Dug’s Dive. To his credit, he stayed open all year. I mean, he struggled. We’re trying to convince this community that this can be a year round destination. If you’ve ever been in San Francisco, it’s windy there and it gets cold there and rainy there …

Heaney: Yeah, not Buffalo cold, though.

Gioia: Well, I understand that. But, you can be in different cities in the world and … this should be a year-round opportunity for folks. You’ll start to see some progress, we hope, in the terminal buildings. You will also see the Outer Harbor – the parcel right behind the NYPA silo, right below the Times Nature Preserve, will be opened up this spring. So, you’ll start to see it gradually. I don’t think you’ll see massive stuff happening for the next couple of years because you’re going to need to start planning, and need to really understand …

Heaney: So, when there’s enough in the ground … is going to be when?

Gioia: I would say two years.

Heaney: Two years? OK. We’ve got a few minutes, I would like you to put on your foundation hat for a minute. The Oishei Foundation is one of several foundations, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo is another major player. They’ve put money into the Say Yes to Education Program and really sees Buffalo Public Schools as a really critical reform item.

Gioia: Challenge.

Heaney: That’s a nice way of putting it. The new superintendent has been in since last September. What’s your assessment of the progress that’s been made, and are you satisfied with that pace of progress?

Gioia: The answer is: I’m satisfied with that pace of progress. We would all have hoped that it would have been quicker, but understanding that this is about years of despair in an institution, it’s just not going to happen instantly. Most folks will tell you that it’s going to take several years to start to see some change. But, you’re starting to see some of that already. You’re starting to see the focus on the underperforming schools. Dr. Judy Elliott, the distinguished educator, is focusing in on those. She would like to see progress quicker. The superintendent will tell you that she is making progress in the district, overall, so it’s a bit of apples and oranges when they compare one vs. the other. Clearly, the kids want to graduate from high school. They want to go onto college. People feel the attention. We have everyone’s attention to the issue. It clearly is a top priority of ours.

Heaney: Let’s step back away from education, which is one of the areas that your foundation has focused on. Talk about the pressure on the foundation community as governments in Western New York cut back. A lot of folks are coming to the foundations looking to make up the difference. Where are the real key pressure points right now? Who’s out there hurting the most for money and to what degree is the nonprofit community in this town making better use of the dollars it’s got through collaboration and efficiencies?

Gioia: Well, I guess we’ll find out in about ten years from now whether we’re making the right decisions.

Heaney: But, from what you’re seeing …

Gioia: What we’re seeing is: Those that are underserved and underprivileged are really under tremendous pressure. One of the reasons is they don’t have a big voice in government. And, whenever they start to cut, they cut mental health, developmentally disable folks, you know, the handicapped, etcetera, and the poor. So, you know, it’s almost like a cycle. If we don’t improve our health care, if we don’t improve our education system, we can’t get them out of the welfare roles, they’re going to be incarcerated, and it keeps spiraling down and down.

So, what we’re finding is more and more pressure on us to do some of the things that government used to do. Our challenge is to make sure that we don’t let government off the hook. They need to have some skin in the game and we need to make sure that how they’re allocating those dollars – they’re allocating them properly. There’s a lot of money available in social services in Erie County Government.

Heaney: Is the problem lack of resources or is it just lack of efficient programs in place?

Gioia: I would say it’s not lack of resources, it’s lack of creating the models that are current and more efficient. I think that your word of “efficient” is right, is correct and accurate, so that the money really does get to where it needs to go.

Heaney: Are we seeing much progress on that front?

Gioia: We are. Some of the announcements will be coming out shortly on some reallocation of funds and, very similar to what we do and how we deal with the Outer Harbor, is how we have to deal with this issue. You need everyone to be able to openly communicate at the table, and be transparent. Check your egos at the door. Let’s solve what’s best for this community. We’re starting to see that progress in Say Yes and rallying around that. Supporting these kids is the beginning of it.