Central Terminal decays as board delays

For years, the Central Terminal suffered from willful neglect at the hands of its private owners. While the building lay open to vandals, artifacts were stolen and metal pipes stripped out.

When the non-profit Central Terminal Restoration Corporation took ownership in 1997, the hope was that the group would halt the building’s deterioration and find a responsible developer to secure its long-term future.

But the building is still deteriorating. And dysfunction in the Restoration Corporation’s board of directors has hampered progress in preserving and redeveloping it, former board members have told Investigative Post.

“There’s so many different things wrong with the building, the damage is astounding,” said former board member Paul Maurer.

The building was in bad shape when the Restoration Corporation bought it for one dollar in 1997. Since then, volunteers have worked on the upkeep of the building and the Restoration Corporation has raised enough money to make limited repairs.

But the building needs more extensive repairs than volunteers can manage, and more expensive than the non-profit can afford, according to internal records.

As a result, the mortar between the bricks of the main tower is disintegrating, some of the cast-iron roof drains leak and the ornamental canopies over the entrances are decaying.

“The building is dictating the speed of the race and unfortunately is starting to get away from us,” former board chair Mark Lewandowski wrote in an email last year.

In another email he wrote: “The building has more structural and safety issues than most people know.”

Preventing the building from crumbling depends on the Restoration Corporation’s ability to raise money and, ultimately, to find a developer willing to invest.

The scale of repairs needed, the sheer size of the complex and its location in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods make this a daunting task—and one former board members say is made even harder by in-fighting and inaction.

The divisions within the board created “a deadlock situation, where you just feel like there’s nothing substantial getting done,” Maurer said.

Last year, six directors – more than a third of the board – left. Four resigned in the space of two days in June, including executive director Marilyn Rodgers, the only paid employee.

This story is based on interviews with seven current and former CTRC board members, minutes of board meetings, grant applications, financial documents and organizational reports, as well as more than 400 internal emails given to Investigative Post.

“There are certainly opportunities that we’ve missed,” said Paul Lang, CTRC spokesperson and board member. “We weren’t efficient – and we’re still not efficient.

“General dysfunction and missed opportunity”

For a long time, the Central Terminal seemed doomed.

After the last train left in 1979, the building decayed as it passed through the hands of a series of private owners.

Eighteen years went by before the Restoration Corporation took ownership and attempts at renovating the terminal began. By then, “the building was stripped to ribbons inside,” said Fillmore Common Council Member David Franczyk, who helped engineer the deal between former owner Samuel Tuchman and the non-profit organization.

Over the years, he said, “there’s been a million ideas” for what to do with the building and adjoining property: a golf course, a casino, a call center, a satellite site for the Albright Knox—even a stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

The main concourse has been open to the public since 2003 and most of the Restoration Corporation’s revenue has come from renting it out for events like weddings, train shows and Dyngus Day celebrations. In 2009, however, the organization’s board of directors decided to take a more active role in the redevelopment of the complex, publishing a master plan for its reuse.

One obstacle to this goal, however, was the board itself.

A 2011 report by Serendipity Leadership Solutions, a consulting firm engaged by the Restoration Corporation, found that board members had failed to “adequately carry out” their “primary roles,” resulting in “general dysfunction and missed opportunity for the organization.”

Among the problems identified: “ineffective meetings”, the board’s failure to “act as a team”, and a general lack of “trust and respect” among board members.

Events brought in some money, but not nearly enough to halt the building’s deterioration, the consultants said.

Moreover, many of the directors had little experience in nonprofit management or fundraising.

“Though they mean well, volunteer board members are overwhelmed by the day to day operations,” a subsequent Serendipity Leadership Solutions report found, making it “nearly impossible” for them to spend time on projects requiring “focus and follow up.”

It was therefore “critical,” the consultants said, that the organization hire a full-time executive director who knew how to run a non-profit and could secure the funding needed for extensive repairs.

A new direction 

“External funding is desperately needed to ensure the future of the historic Central Terminal complex,” Lewandowski wrote in a 2011 application to the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation for money to hire an executive director.

If funding for the position was not secured, the “current state of disrepair and corresponding costs of refurbishment” would “overwhelm volunteer efforts,” he wrote.

The Wendt Foundation agreed to cover the cost of the first year’s salary. In 2012 the board chose a new executive director from a pool of 28 candidates. They settled on Marilyn Rodgers, an experienced non-profit consultant who advised Buffalo’s Housing Court on reforms and worked as general manager of Marine Drive Apartments.

The press release announcing Rodgers’ appointment praised her “great enthusiasm and strong leadership skills.”

But problems surfaced almost immediately, as Rodgers’ efforts to take the organization in a new direction encountered resistance from some long-time board members.

The constant in-fighting made it hard to get things done, former board members said. Meetings would drag on for hours without decisions being made. Differences of opinion descended into personal attacks. And communication among the board and its various committees—as well as among board members—was fraught.

“This entire organization, starting with its leadership, is a disgrace and embarrassment,” Lang, who was then chairman, wrote in a February 2014 email to board members. “I’ve seen greater levels of mutual professional/personal respect and courtesy demonstrated in kindergarten classes.”

The same month, Rodgers shared a memo with the board evaluating the organization’s progress.

“We’re beyond going nowhere fast, we’re stepping steadily backwards,” she wrote.

One longtime donor wrote in an email to Rodgers, in response to a March 2014 fundraising campaign: “I would like to see some forward movement before we open wallets and purses once more. Hope is not a strategy and we should not confuse activity with outcome.”

“Severe disrepair and decline”

As board members bickered, the building continued to deteriorate.

“When you first walk onto the concourse it doesn’t look that bad but when you probe more into the corners you realize how much work there is,” said Maurer, a former board member.

The condition of the building was dire when the Restoration Corporation took ownership. The floors were “strewn with debris,” mostly plaster from collapsed ceilings, according to a 1996 environmental report. Walls covering pipes had been broken open and the rotting body of a dog was found in the underpass beneath Curtiss Street.

Teams of volunteers continue to work on the upkeep of the building and make some repairs.

They have made progress over the years, and had cleaned the main concourse enough to reopen it to the public in 2003.

But the building needs much more work.

By 2011, the Restoration Corporation had raised around $1.3 million, according to grant applications. The repairs the building needs will cost far more than that—up to $20 million, according to the 2011 consultant’s report.

The building’s iconic tower is especially vulnerable.

“It’s getting socked with forty miles per hour winds, it’s going freeze thaw, freeze thaw, there is no heat in the building,” Rodgers said.

By 2010, the masonry on the tower was in “dire need of immediate attention” because of water getting into the spaces between the bricks, causing “disintegrating, powdery mortar joints” and “deteriorating brickwork conditions,” according to an architectural assessment. The architects recommended a permanent replacement of the tower roof at an estimated cost of $2.6 million. This was never done, although smaller-scale roof repairs were made in 2013.

By 2011, the architects were saying there was “evidence of structural problems” on the lower walls of the main concourse building.

And a November 2012 report found that “all four corners” of the roof of the main structure “were in dire condition.”

Leaks persist: last spring board member Brian Dadswell wrote in an email “there is water running everywhere. The Van Dyke room is a lake right now.”

The ornamental marquees covering the entrances to the main building have suffered “extensive roofing deterioration and water damage” and the concrete connecting them to the wall was “cracked, loose, and unsound,” Lewandowski wrote in a 2011 grant application.

“They are in a state of severe disrepair and decline and pose a safety hazard to visitors,” he continued. “If not immediately restored, loss of the canopies is imminent.”

The same year, the organization received a $300,000 grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The money raised as matching funds was eventually spent on emergency roof repairs instead, Lang said, and the Restoration Corporation had to forfeit the grant.

Former board members said they were frustrated by the focus on temporary fixes.

“It’s a frustrating thing when you have this little pot of money, which is all that we had, and you’ve got this big need within the building,” Maurer said.

Board members knew that the building’s condition required immediate action.

“There is urgency with respect to the Terminal and its current condition,” board member Michael Nisengard wrote in a March 2014 email. And that placed an “organizational urgency” on the Restoration Corporation, he added.

He asked if anyone knew how many bricks had fallen off the building since the last board meeting.

“Do you think the answer could be greater than one brick? Possibly greater than a dozen bricks? We have had lots of snow and very strong winds since our last meeting, so maybe your answer is more than 50 bricks?”

Disagreements and delays

One of the deepest rifts among board members developed just as it seemed that they were making progress.

In March 2014, Fred LoFaso, a board member and developer, offered to buy the five-story baggage building next to the main structure.

The building’s windows were broken, its brickwork deteriorated and the roof in need of replacement, according to a 2011 architectural report.

But LoFaso was hoping that redeveloping it “might spur interest in tackling the lion’s share of the development,” he said.

He made a cash offer of $200,000. The board voted unanimously in March 2014 to “approve and act” on LoFaso’s initial proposal, which was then referred to a subcommittee for further work.

In a June 2014 email, Dadswell urged the committee to make headway, arguing that the proposal represented “an opportunity to jump start this project with a reputable developer” and save a section of the building that had received little attention.

“I thought it was looking pretty viable,” Maurer said. “I thought it was a good idea to take at least one parcel and show that we could get something done.”

But weeks passed with no sign of progress, LoFaso said.

“They kept on throwing up nonsensical roadblocks time and time again.”

Lang, who was chair of the committee reviewing the proposal, said the delays were not intentional, but that LoFaso did not provide satisfactory answers to the committee’s questions.

If the delays weren’t intentional, LoFaso wrote in an email, they were “at the very least another symptom of how dysfunctional our operations are.”

“It continued to drag and ultimately it just turned into a big fight,” Lang said.

LoFaso eventually withdrew the offer.

By the end of the year, the Restoration Corporation had lost six members of its board, including Rodgers, the executive director, as well as the volunteer coordinator and vice-chair.

“It was pretty much a farce,” said LoFaso. “There was a mass exodus.”

In his resignation email, Maurer wrote: “I would hate to stand by as the building crumbles while the board points fingers everywhere but within.”

Back to square one? 

The Restoration Corporation issued a request for proposals for development in February. Lang said there were two formal responses, as well as other more informal expressions of interest.

One of those came from architect and developer Jake Schneider, who said the Restoration Corp. “needs to produce a tangible vision that people can embrace—right now there’s nothing like that.”

He added that basic infrastructure and government investment would likely need to be in place before a developer would bite.

“There are too many fundamental issues for a private developer to go in and invest their money right now,” Schneider said.

Lang said the other board members have worked harder to compensate since Rodgers’ departure. Still, he added: “you can only push volunteers so much.”

And, he said, an all-volunteer organization isn’t well-suited to working on development projects.

“The lack of communication can at times be very dysfunctional and frustrating, especially when you have to move at the speed of business,” Lang said.

Others say the condition of the building leaves no time for more delays.

“If it’s not redeveloped it’s going to deteriorate even more—and eventually we’re going to lose it,” LoFaso said.