Buffalo business owner, Darold Fountain, looks to make a difference on the East Side with a mixed-use building that includes affordable housing.

Could you please tell us a little about yourself?

My name is Darold Fountain. I’ve been in Buffalo since 1986. I’m a graduate of Howard University with a degree in finance. I came to Buffalo to work at my family’s business, Phoenix Window Manufacturing. 

I then started my own company, Aurora Window Systems and Contracting, about ten years ago. I’ve been, in some form or another, dealing with real estate development, but not in this specific form. Meaning I would buy a house, fix it up, and rent it out. I’ve been doing that since I came to Buffalo, but never really understood how to do it in a professional fashion. Right now I sell commercial residential windows. I work with a lot of developers or contractors who are working with developers who are doing affordable housing. I supply the windows for a lot of projects such as Jefferson Avenue Apartments and People, Inc. and I work on a lot of projects with Creative Structure Services. I’ve been around development for the last five years on the heavy side. I also work with BENLIC [the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation] and I worked with them in the capacity where I would bid competitively, complete the rehabs, and then they would sell the homes after I finished. So I have some experience in doing that kind of work, in addition to doing my own work.

Well, this class came up — and you always wonder how you hear about the tax credits and you hear about brownfield tax credits and you just don’t know what you don’t know. But you just want to understand how it’s done. When the first class came out, I really wasn’t in the mode I’m in now. I’m in a developer’s mode now. Although my company is doing fine, it’s taxing because of the personnel requirements. I’d like to spend the rest of my days doing something completely different, like real estate development. In the process of doing that, I bought several properties in the medical corridor about five years ago with the hope that we were going to tear down and rebuild them — do some type of development, but it never really happened. So we’re in this development space and this class comes up. And I’m like, “This is perfect.” Not really understanding how perfect it is. But this is perfect because I need to understand how it’s really done.

It’s a small community. It seems everybody knows everybody. But people who are in the space doing projects on a large scale have come in and been our instructors, which is invaluable. And that is unbelievable to me to have the people who are at the top of their craft come in and tell us how it’s done. I cannot tell you how applicable the information has been as I’m in the development phase of several projects myself. I can’t give it enough accolades. I can’t tell you the value. You can’t put a value on someone’s experience coming to you via Zoom or in class and breaking it down as they have. Every single instructor is an all-star and the coordinators are all-stars. I have a degree in finance, but here you are getting theory and practical life experience from instructors who are in the game, who pretty much helped build up Buffalo. You’re not talking about people at the low end of this. You’re talking about people at the top end of the totem pole coming to share their experience — how they do things, how it’s done. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough about the instructors because when you get CEOs of construction companies coming in, sharing how they get pricing? And I’m the guy who has the construction company always wondering how they do it. 

How did you learn about the CBREDT program?

I learned about the program when it first started. I was in the original focus group of people when the UB Regional Institute was building the program. I was one of those people who gave some input into what was going to be important because I was doing some type of development at that point.

Could you tell us about your building/project/goals? What are you hoping to accomplish?

I have a mixed-use Building at 500 Leroy. It’s about a 3900-square-foot frame building that is zoned mixed-use — residential and commercial use. It is my intent to create three apartments and one large 400-square feet or 300-square feet storefront and one efficiency, one two-bedroom, and one three-bedroom apartment, and make it something the community can be proud of. Then find tenants, because there’s a shortage of housing right now. So find tenants who would fit the style of apartments that I put together, which is going to be a little bit above affordable housing. Mine is going to be a step up. 

How will your project benefit the neighborhood/East Side community?

Well, first of all, any time you make an investment in what I call a commercial corridor, you’re making something that is an asset to the community and that would bring about a higher quality of living in the area. I’m not going to put a [another] corner store there. I don’t know what I would put there. I’m not going to put a business I manage there, but I’ll be very thorough in evaluating what goes in.

How will what you learned from this class help you accomplish your development goals?

The class helped me build an understanding of:

1) What development is about

2) How to go about understanding developments from a process of market analysis.

3) How to see if the numbers actually work for the development you have in mind and

4) If everything works, how to present it to the lending community in a way that makes them take a look at your project.

Would you recommend this program to others who hope to develop commercial property on the East Side? If so, why, and what would you say to them?

Absolutely! I would be the poster child for a hundred reasons why. Whatever you’re trying to learn — I don’t care if you’re trying to learn how to skip rope or become a better swimmer, if you have the top professional as your instructor, what more could you ask?

We have the all-star players in every position teaching us. Not people on the sideline talking about it in theory. I can go to their projects right now. I can drive by their project and remember what’s going on because I watch projects going on and I don’t know what’s going on behind them. And then, BOOM! I’m in the class with the person who did that project talking about how they did it. So maybe because I’ve been in tune with what’s going on, I benefit more. But even if you have one ounce of desire to develop, this is the class. I talked about this class and people were like, “how can I get in that class?” In addition, UB is a part of it that actually has a real estate development component that they offer. This is part of our class indirectly or directly.

I have a degree in finance, but here you are getting theory and practical life experience from instructors who are in the game, who pretty much helped build up Buffalo.

What are your immediate next steps?

My immediate next step is to finish my financial analysis on my project. I’ve got architects that will be coming in shortly and we’re going to value-engineer the project now because in its initial state it wasn’t going to work. And that came from understanding from the class. I can’t get emotional about it. Here’s a project. It will work if you sculpt it right. So what I’ve learned in business also is that you can’t get everything you want, but you can get something, right? So what is that something you can get that works? And so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m value engineering, the scope of the design and there are some fundamental things that have to take place, like structural that has to be taken care of. But after the structural stuff is done, I have what you want to call a “ready to happen” project —  ready to go to work. So we’re going to go to work on this thing. I’m going to see what funding I can get. 

I run a business full time. I’m in a class and a developer right now. And I’m telling you I’m at wit’s end, I am literally losing my mind some days. But check this out, because I’m doing the development that I did win I’m able to get some other talent, specifically for a development company. I’m asking people to help me. When my whole community is affected in a positive way by the efforts of this class and the projects that we have coming in the pipeline. So I get to train, expose, develop, and hire a group of people closely associated with this development, which enhances my community. So it’s a big thing. It’s not a small thing. 

What is your vision for the East Side?

My vision for the east side is continued growth. What I mean by that is: continued, well-thought-out, well-planned, community-adjusted development. That’s what I’d like to see. I like to see projects that pick up the community, not just pick up the project. So when you come into the East Side, like all developments, they pick up the community, too.

Don’t not pick up the community because this community needs to be picked up. So we have to lift as we climb.

When I found out that serving others was the answer, then everything started working right for me. That means serving my customers and serving my employees. Then people began to want to help me. Because it wasn’t all about me. And so, just like when I see it done for me, that’s why I can understand the value of the class because they’re doing something for me. So it’s powerful. I marvel. I’m blown away. My stepmother is in the class. She has a pretty sweet project. Hers is like two thumbs up and two thumbs up and two thumbs up because she’s done the work already. That’s what we’ve always been as a family. We’ve always put our money into it. And then we would wait for the long, long return on our investment. That’s the problem. We’ve always had to take our money. We didn’t know how to position it on a financial spreadsheet; to go to the bank and show the debt coverage ratio is over 1.2 so you feel comfortable lending us the money. We sacrificed to do development. That’s not how this is done. Yes, development is done financially, but not with the developer’s money. He doesn’t take all his money to do his development, he borrows to do development and he still lives his normal life. When we do development, we take our marrow and put it in. That’s why it’s so emotional. Because we didn’t know how to go to the bank and present it in a way that made them believe that we knew what we were doing.

Learning how to get out of that trap is priceless — even to know that your project can’t work. It also makes you understand, as a student, why East Side development is not happening. People always beat the mayor up because of what he hasn’t done because development on the East Side hasn’t occurred. Well, it’s about financing and financials. I call the East Side the “affordable living zone” because the only way you can do a project is if it is subsidized — and that’s the truth! When you live the truth of it all, you can better navigate it. As long as I’m thinking it should be something different and I want to take it personally. I take it personally because very simply, it was built to be that way. And racism or whatever you want to call it exists. And that’s why my value’s not worth theirs. But in the bigger scheme of things, if I take out all that, it’s just a numbers game. So I’m not going to find people who have money that are not going to come and spend money in areas that do not pencil out.

I take out all the emotional components. I just look at the business part of a job or project. Because in the endgame, that’s what it really all comes down to. It’s not black or white, it’s “will it work?” Nobody’s in the business of emotionally spending some money and then saying, we did a good job, but now what?