Too often it is overlooked that in order for a community to recover and move forward there needs to be risks taken and investments procured, both large and small. Nick Sinatra was rejected time and time again when looking for investors – just mentioning Buffalo led to “let me give you some advice kid” or “don’t waste your time”… some even laughed in his face. But the opportunity was there and Nick’s love for his hometown wasn’t going to let him be discouraged. So, when he got his chance, he made it stick.
Nick Sinatra is a Buffalo native raised in the restaurant business (Sinatra’s) and educated at St. Joe’s High School. Upon graduating he went on to play football and study Politics and Economics at Yale University and then to Wharton School of Business to get his MBA in Real Estate Finance.
Prior to founding Sinatra & Company Real Estate, Nick worked in Governor Pataki’s Economic Development Agency in Buffalo, The Empire State Development Agency. There, Nick was involved in the development deal that brought Geico’s 2300-job call center to Amherst.
He then went on to serve as Associated Political Director at the White House, where he managed President George W Bush’s political affairs in the Northeastern part of the United States.
Founding Sinatra and Company Real Estate in 2009, the investment firm is focused on Western NY and Chicagoland. The entrepreneurial company invests in distressed multi-family and commercial real estate. Since inception, it has acquired over 5,500 apartment units and 850,000 square feet of commercial space with more in the pipeline.
In total Sinatra & Company Real Estate and its affiliates have over $500 million in assets under management with over 2 million square feet of real estate in upstate New York, Chicago, and Indiana. The firm has a diverse investor base including institutional capital backing from Colony Capital, Genesis Capital, Windsor Capital, Torchlight Capital, Prospect Capital, and the Pritzker/Vlock Family Office.
Sinatra & Company Real Estate is different from other real estate firms. It takes a fresh approach to evaluate opportunities. Since its founding, Nick has assembled a team of highly motivated individuals who share his vision and passion to reclaim Buffalo, NY as the world-class city it was destined to be (again). The company believes in people beyond profits. The company believes in rebuilding neighborhoods as a sustainable investment platform that raises up a city and therefore provides maximum return and social satisfaction to its investors. The company is expanding rapidly and has solidified itself as one of Buffalo’s fastest growing businesses.
I sat down with Nick at Expo Market.
So, you’ve had quite a run. From Yale, to Wharton PA, and the White House, you could have gone anywhere, what brought you back to Buffalo?
I’ve always loved Buffalo, it’s such a unique place. When you’re not in Buffalo you long for it. There is such a deep sense of community here, all my family is here. I’ve always loved and and wanted to be involved in its resurgence. Actually, in my senior thesis at Yale, I was working with a professor that taught urbanism, and I worked with him on my vision for the revitalization of Buffalo. So, even then I wanted to be involved with developing Buffalo and restoring it to the city it was and more. Ha, I’d love to get ahold of that thesis and see what my young self had envisioned, that’d be interesting.
When you’re not in Buffalo, you long for it.
I’ve always had the view that Buffalo’s best days are ahead of it, not behind it. When I finished business school I saw a huge opportunity in the market. So, I set out to raise some money. Raising money in 2009 for real estate in Buffalo was not… ha, was not an easy thing. I must have asked 50 people for money. I started to get really discouraged. Finally I met with an individual that I had the opportunity to meet with during my time at the White House. He was willing to take a chance on me, and on Buffalo, and we have been working together ever since. Since then that family has invested over 60 million dollars into our projects. Most of which are here in Buffalo, with some others in Chicago.
You know, it was one of those moments… when I shook his hand, I tried to keep my cool as I walked out his front door. As soon as I got around the corner I started jumping up and down like a little kid. It was an amazing moment for me.
What are some of the recurring challenges that you see in the region?
There are multiple challenges that I feel we could improve on. One is, institutional capital or outside the region capital, doesn’t really want to be here. They see Buffalo as a tertiary market, Buffalo doesn’t have the demographics to excite big scale capital. Population growth is flat. We have an aging population, we have seen some of the millennials coming back home which is great, but generally speaking we have an aging population, and we have a lot of poverty, so there is a wage problem with people not earning enough. That scares institutional capital away.
When you are asking someone to cut a check, you gotta think, their question is, “Why am I going to invest in Buffalo, over, Austin, or Raleigh, or Pittsburgh?” It’s hard to bring a case to get people to invest.
There have been challenges in our leadership over the years but I think we are headed in the right direction now. For a long time our elected leadership wasn’t working together. That has changed. I think we have great leadership now. From the Mayor to our state senators and legislators, people like Crystal People-Stokes, we have people that have started to really work together. So, that has been such a huge part of moving forward.
But there is a lot of infighting among political factions within the community which isn’t healthy. And it’s happening nationally, but it is certainly a problem here. You know, you have certain groups pushing for affordable housing without thinking about the economic consequences to development. And, that’s important – Sinatra & Company Real Estate is doing affordable housing, but there are issues that come with trying to push it as a mandate rather than letting the market figure out the best way develop it. So you see a lot of division within the community on these kinds of issues.
When I first started, there was a perception problem about Buffalo. “Chicken wings and snow” is all people thought of us, but that is gone now, which is great. There has been a lot of national press about Buffalo and its resurgence, and that has helped tremendously.
So, you know, we are moving forward but there are certainly things that we need to improve upon to keep the momentum.
What can we do to get people more interested in investing in Buffalo?
We have to continuously promote ourselves. It’s funny, historically Buffalonians are very prideful, we are quick to defend if someone else talks about us, but we will also be the first to talk down about ourselves. From that standpoint I think that we have done a good job in the last five years of promoting ourselves but we have to keep it up. Continue to promote people that are making changes, pushing forward, and making things happen here. Even just speaking highly of ourselves when we are outside the region, these things help.
Legislatively we have to stop doing the things that are making NYS less competitive. That’s a deep broad discussion, but there are things like the property taxes, this new prevailing wage, and the new mortgage tax situation in the Trump tax bill. These things hurt us disproportionately when compared to other states, and make it difficult to bring population and business here. These things matter to us, because all of the sudden you have people that can’t take a mortgage deduction on their home, they are more likely to move somewhere like Florida, and we lose that person and all of that disposable income that would be used in our economy. These are things that hurt us longterm. We need to keep our population to attract new business.
Last thing, we need to continuously promote the things that are already successful. Like the medical campus – that is a huge driver on our success. So we need to make sure that people know about it and what it has done for our community especially in attracting young people here and the consolidation of health services. And we need to promote our big businesses. Places like M&T Bank and some of the big law firms, Geico, you know, these places employ thousands of Buffalonians and breathe life into our economy. I think a lot of people are quick to look past that. I’m really hoping that Solar City becomes what it could be for our city in terms of jobs and sustainability.
There are so many. Of course some sports moments come to mind, but I think something that stands out is the experience I’ve had in helping develop the East Side. We have done a lot of development on the East Side of Buffalo, and it has been absolutely remarkable. To work with a community that has been left behind, it’s amazing to be a part of helping to bring hope with affordable housing and new jobs.
So, we did a job fair with Home Depot. We hosted it on East Ferry, and hundreds of people showed up. It was amazing. It was so awesome to see so many people take advantage of the opportunity. They ended up hiring 50 people, just from that job fair. So, a few weeks later I showed up to a Home Depot and I saw one of the people that got the job from that job fair, and it just hit me. Like this is awesome, this is working.
Your idol comes to town, where are you taking them?
Haha, well, my idol is Frank Sinatra, so clearly he won’t be coming to town anytime soon. But, I would have to take him to my family’s restaurant of course.
We do this a lot for our business, and when I have people come to town I like to take them pretty much on a tour of our city. I show them the economic progress that we have had. We tour some of our company’s development sites highlighting the potential on the East Side. Then we hit the Elmwood Village, Canalside. Harbor Center – I tell them about all the cool exciting stuff that the city is about now, like the concert series. I tell them about how fanatical we are about our sports teams. I try to give them an idea of who we are as a city and what makes us great.
So if somehow Frank Sinatra were to come to town, we would take a tour of the city, have some dinner at Sinatra’s then I’d want to take him to one of my buddy’s places to have a few drinks. Either Soho, or Frankie Primo’s, or Hutch’s. There are so many great new spots that have popped up in the city, but I tend to be a little bit more traditional, growing up in the restaurant business, I gotta support my friends.
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about Buffalo, what would it be?
Haha, shorten the winters.
You know, it’s really interesting. If you look at other cities of our size and stature that are thriving, they do not have anywhere close to what we have to offer culturally.
We have so much to offer. Think about the cultural institutions we have: two major sport teams, one of the best art museums in the world at the Albright Knox, a world-class full-scale philharmonic, Niagara Falls, a really great arts and music scene. I mean, we are really a gold mine of city… but the weather hurts us.
What do you have on the horizon?
We have a number of projects underway. A lot of which are taking advantage of the Opportunity Zones of Buffalo. Opportunity Zones are a national program that were a spawn of the national tax bill. At its core it is meant to incentivize urban development . That’s the goal. It offers special tax treatment to people who have capital gains to attract that capital to go into urban centers. But it’s very useful to places like Buffalo, that have neighborhoods that happen to be in census tracks that don’t meet national standards. So, investors need to invest for ten years. That money needs to be at work in that community for ten years and the investor gets special tax treatment. It’s going to increase the amount of money available in urban cores and it’s gonna help to bring outside capital in. So really it means that we have a boost that will help us develop these zones and bring more money to the city.
We have been working to develop a lot of these Zones, a large potion of the Jefferson Quarter, the Children’s Hospital re-development, and we are doing some things on Main Street. One project to be on the look out for that we are extremely excited about is Heritage Point, down at Canalside.
Heritage Point… the first floor is going to be a food hall.
Heritage Point is being developed in an Opportunity Zone right downtown next to the Children’s Museum. The first floor is going to be a food hall, and we are going to have offices and apartments that will be 90% market rate, and 10% affordable housing apartments right down in the heart of the city. The food hall is going to be really cool, kind of in a New York City market place style. So, we are really excited about that.
Who would you recommend as a “Building Block” of Buffalo?
Nick, thank you for your contribution to our city, we need to keep bringing bright minds back home.
About Building Blocks:
A renaissance is not built solely on the shoulders of the big and powerful, it is the workings of the commoners of society coming together and pushing small blocks up against the big ones to set a solid foundation for change. In the midst of the new, vibrant and ever-expanding Buffalo, we find ourselves needing to know more about it! Who are we missing? Who is behind it? Who are the unsung heroes responsible for the rebirth of our great city. Who do you know that has made a difference? We are calling on you to send us candidates for our upcoming series of interviews titled “Building Blocks”.
- Individuals or organizations that have withstood the test of time. The ones who have stayed true to their values in the slow times and have now pushed forth and flourished in the new.
- People who have initiated successful start-ups in the areas of business, energy, arts or education.
- People who have given their free time to the betterment of our community.
- People who have created better situations for their fellow Buffalonians.
- Basically, anyone that you think deserves a mention in the progress of our great city.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org subject line “Building Blocks” with any recommendations along with any contact information you might have.
It’s time that the foundation of our rebirth, big or little, be recognized and appreciated for their efforts.
Building Blocks: Steve Baczkowski