The Buffalo Common Council on Tuesday voted down a request for a $563,000 loan for the Braymiller Market, a downtown grocery store that’s previously received subsidies and other public assistance.
The proposed funding drew outcry from some residents who argued that if the city was going to spend COVID-19 relief funding on a grocery store, it ought to support a store on the East Side, rather than downtown. That issue, the lack of supermarkets on the East Side, was highlighted after last year’s attack on the Tops on Jefferson Avenue, which caused the store to close for several months.
The nay vote came after months of deliberation from the Council, which was pushed by Mayor Byron Brown’s administration to allocate federal pandemic funds to the market. Some Council members, including President Darius Pridgen, questioned whether it was appropriate to spend funds on Braymiller that were originally intended to assist small businesses struggling as a result of the pandemic.
Brown’s administration argued that it had allocated nearly $1 million of a $1.5 million pot of American Rescue Plan funds and could not find other recipients for the remaining dollars. Pridgen and other Council members questioned that assertion Tuesday.
“[Residents] were just outraged that we would consider giving $500,000 to one business and I think I was right along with them,” University Council Member Rasheed Wyatt said.
“I have businesses in my district that could use $5,000, $10,000, to purchase additional equipment, so they can get their businesses up and running, it just wasn’t fair, and especially for a grocery store.”
Fillmore Council Member Mitch Nowakowski said he agreed with the administration that keeping a grocery store open downtown was important, but faulted Brown for not advocating for the funding more aggressively. He joined his colleagues in unanimously voting the request down.
Pridgen on Tuesday led the charge in defeating the request for the funds, noting that nearby residents don’t shop at Braymiller, in part because of high prices.
Located at the corner of Ellicott and Clinton streets, the Braymiller Market opened in September 2021 as part of a revitalization project that saw a downtown parking lot transformed into 201 affordable housing units and the grocery store.
To bring such a project to life, the city, county and state heavily subsidized the venture,. It provided $58.9 million in public assistance, plus $16 million in tax-free loans.
Those tax breaks, grants and loans included:
- $21.8 million in federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits.
- A $19.1 million subsidy from New York State Homes and Community Renewal.
- $16 million in low-cost state loans.
- $15.2 million in brownfield cleanup tax credits from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
- A $2 million grant from the state’s Housing Trust Fund Corporation.
- And $765,000 in property, sales and mortgage recording tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.
While many of those subsidies and grants helped fund and construct the affordable apartment units, the Braymiller Market enjoyed the benefits, too, including the property and sales tax breaks granted by the Erie County IDA and the funding that assisted construction.
Owner Stuart Green’s ask for $563,000 in COVID-19 assistance rankled some residents, and raised questions among Council members. That was due in part to Braymiller Market being part-retail and part-wholesale, meaning it did not offer what a traditional supermarket does. Pridgen, among others, questioned if that type of enterprise was needed downtown.
In a March interview, Lisa Hicks — director of development in the city’s Office of Strategic Planning — said the city changed the program’s rules to allow more businesses to qualify for funds leftover from the original $1.5 million. She said the city did not change the rules specifically to benefit Braymiller. Still, she said, the administration felt that having a downtown grocery store was important.
“It behooves the city to try and do what it can to try and keep the market open for residents of downtown,” Hicks told Investigative Post.
Food equity advocates questioned why the city would support a grocery store downtown, rather than one on the East Side.
Nnenna Ferguson, executive director of the Buffalo Food Equity Network, opposed the proposed grant to Braymiller at an April 25 Council hearing. She argued that money would be better spent on East Side grocery stores and markets and that Braymiller should have known the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would impact its business.
“It seems that this request, to community residents, is like a bailout to a business that was not considering the needs of the 14203 district in the first place,” Ferguson said.
Green did not respond to a request for comment from Investigative Post on Tuesday regarding the Council’s vote. In a March statement, he said the funding would “provide a much-needed financial bridge” to help his store recover from the pandemic. Hicks previously noted that Green had not been eligible for federal pandemic aid, like a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
In a statement Tuesday evening, city spokesperson Michael DeGeorge called the council’s vote “disappointing.”
“It’s disappointing, as Braymiller Market provides additional access to fresh food for the lower Eastside, lower Westside and the growing downtown community,” DeGeorge said. “We hope the Council reconsiders.”
Wyatt and Pridgen both said Tuesday that the city should engage the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center to identify additional recipients for the leftover pandemic relief funds.
“We have so many businesses that could use some money after COVID-19 and many of the grocery stores have never come to us asking for any money, however this particular grocery store did,” Wyatt said. “It didn’t feel good to me.”
“I hope we can engage the Beverly Gray Center to find those businesses that need this money desperately, and get it in their hands, that’s the key,” he added. “Let’s get it in the hands of these businesses that can truly use it.”