I told Curtin "no", in a way, about four years ago when he inquired as to how he could bring more local foods into what are now his three restaurants (Lake Effect Diner, The Steer and Dug's Dive). There is no distribution system for local fruits and vegetables, and those chefs who are buying local meat are chefs from boutique restaurants who are willing to break down whole (or nearly whole) animals in their kitchens. At the time, I believed that the kind of volume Curtin needed to do, and the casual dining prices he fetches at his restaurants would make sourcing local a less viable option for him. But he didn't want to listen, though he was very polite, and I had soon learned that I had severely underestimated him. The handful of phone numbers I had provided him proved a challenge, of sorts, for Curtin, and before long, he was serving 100% local beef burgers in his restaurants, smoking and curing hams and bacon, sourcing local maple syrup and blueberries and wowing customers in droves. Curtin had proven that dedication and the ability to buy and process in large quantities had made "local" a possibility and a viable business venture for his restaurants.
On a gorgeous sunny day last week, standing with our backs to the river overlooking the mammoth buildings known as Terminals A & B on the Outer Harbor, Curtin begins to unfold his plan for transforming this part of the waterfront. The idea is an undertaking that would overwhelm most--the scale of these buildings is hard to fathom, even while looking at them. The idea of choosing to be responsible for their success would terrify most. As he talks he points out the breathtaking waterfront view, the rail car lines and the design of Terminal A, with its ability to make the use of natural light and the breeze off the river, both of which make the building naturally efficient. Additionally, the building seems to have a fascinating manufacturing history, which includes names like Ford and Edison. I say, "I'd tell you it will never happen and you're crazy to even be thinking about it, but I know the more you hear that, the more you'll do to prove us all wrong." Curtin laughs.
Up until now, the buildings, which belong to the NFTA, have been sublet to handful of businesses who don't come close to utilizing the full extent of the property. Prior to that, Terminal A had spent some time as the headquarters for Nanodynamics. The NFTA has given the ECHDC until mid-September to submit a proposal for the area, but Curtin thinks it is unlikely the ECHDC board has had time to develop a plan for this area when there is still so much work to do downtown. Curtin proposes another idea for the space, a mixed-use food processing plant, apartments and restaurants, think Toronto's Distillery District mixed with the farmer-friendly food processing that Western New York so desperately needs. "We have the talent, we have the product," Curtin says, speaking of our local farmers, "but for many years there hasn't been a demand. Now there is, but we're missing the processing facilities." Canning, freezing, pickling, drying, all of these types of processes would be available to WNY farmers, cooperatively.
Below is the letter submitted by Curtin to the NFTA. We'll let you read it for yourself, but despite the scale of the project, Curtin's enthusiasm and drive are undeniable. Now that he's spent a few years on the front lines of local food sourcing here in WNY, he sees all of the gaps in our agricultural system that are preventing our region from being able to really thrive economically, and to provide healthy, fresh food for our region.
Right now, he is hoping that the NFTA will work to keep the buildings open during the winter. While it may seem cost prohibitive, Curtin fears that a single winter on the waterfront with no heat and nobody inside will result in plumbing issues, moisture problems, vandalism and unreported leaks that could cause long term damage. "It seems like no big deal, but once you close one of these buildings up, it can cost half a million dollars or more to recover. I think the recovery rate on re-opening a building of this size after winterizing is pretty low."
"If the New York Port Authority built the World Trade Center, why can't the NFTA help revitalize the waterfront? I think that this can not only become a success for the farmers and restaurant owners, but the NFTA could even reinvest some of their profit into the infrastructure of the waterfront and downtown. Culturals are great, and we envision some of this project being like a museum in that people will come here to see things and to learn things and we could have tours and works studies and more, but it would also produce a product and create jobs and wealth."
"Our community is always looking at other successful projects and saying, 'why can't we have that here', like Faneuil Hall and Seattle's Pike Place Market, but this is an opportunity to lead the way and to capitalize on our region's commodities. Our area is famous for harnessing the river and creating wealth from electricity, maybe it's time that we harness our harvest."
Anyone interested in speaking with Tucker Curtin about this project should email him directly.
Here is the letter sent by Curtin to the commissioners at the NFTA.
The objective is to form a cooperative of food processors and local farmers to process, store and sell their commodities under one entity. Terminal A could be divided into different incubator spaces, each specializing in their prescribed food products.
"The Butcher Block" could be a section devoted to the humane processing of local beef, chicken and pork. The block could have many diverse tenant/members that could include sausage makers, European and Kosher butchers and similar type purveyors of artisan meat products.
A Produce section would feature a year round market open to the public. It would be equipped with a processing area for washing, canning and freezing of the local seasonal harvest. Among the tenant/members could be vegetarian restaurants and producers of fruit and vegetable based foods such as soups, sauces and baby food.
A Bakery section featuring locally milled wheat and other grains with specialized products such as pizza, hand made pastas, breads, cakes and candy makers. Baked goods and confections could be sold wholesale, to the public as well as individually quick frozen for future sale. Production areas would be glassed in for public inspection and entertainment.
The facility lends itself well to different types of restaurants that can be exposed to the waterfront as well as the ability to create within a streetscape with a mall type open air feel during the more inclement months. A focal point, such as a village square, could feature a gathering place for weekend cooking demonstrations and a live music/theater venue.
The list of potential tenant/members from apple pie makers to wine makers is too numerous to list. The ability for local farmers and small food producers to bring their products to the mass market through cooperative methods will allow tenants/members to share services, marketing, processing equipment, byproducts and knowledge. The local farmer can and will continue to increase production knowing that there is processing and storage capacity for the commodities farmed. Products produced would be sold to other cooperative members, the general public, local specialty stores and supermarkets. Commodities could also be shipped via truck and rail widening future markets and lowering costs through bulk purchasing and shipping amongst tenant members.
The cooperative would be committed to green technology and efficiency through environmental responsibility. The facility could also employ hundreds of people with jobs paying $10-$25 or more per hour. The location could also act as a conduit providing seasonal rural farm jobs to the inner city unemployed through job temp services. The Terminal could be a waterfront attraction for tourists as well as becoming a catalyst for year round outer harbor development. Vendors could accept food stamps allowing the poor access to local wholesome foods at reasonable prices. Projects such as this could be financed through the US Department of Agriculture and could qualify for many grants and subsidies. The Cornell Cooperative currently has resources and expertise in this type of initiative that would promote rural farming and the processing and storage of local agricultural commodities.
There exists a tremendous demand from the farming community to have more USDA processing facilities so that they may grow more products and feed more people. The consumer currently has gone back to the basics acquiring an insatiable appetite for wholesome nutrition. The demand and market share for these type products continues to claim its rightful share in the marketplace.
Please consider this request to further develop our waterfront.
P.S. Louis Fuhrmann was a four term Mayor of Buffalo. He was raised poor and worked at the Elk Street Terminal cleaning stalls and eventually worked in Kansas City at a meat packing facility. He married into a Buffalo meat packing business and worked his way to the top. He became successful and very wealthy in the food industry before and after his public service. His
accomplishments as Alderman and Mayor include the construction of the outer harbor wall, electrified city street lamps, improvements to the Buffalo River and the construction of the Hamburg Turnpike to name a few. Fuhrmann believed that the people of Buffalo should utilize all our natural resources and capabilities for the betterment of its citizens.