Born and raised in Buffalo’s East Side, Michael Quinniey has his sights set on the revitalization of his life-long neighborhood.

Could you please tell us a little about yourself? 

My name is Michael Quinniey. I own the Broadway Theatre.

I’m a Buffalo native, born in East Buffalo. I’m the only one of my siblings not born on Broadway. Most of my siblings were born right down the street from the theater. My parents lived here from 1951 to 1958.

My background is in television — I worked at Channel 7 for 25 years. I originally started working for AM Buffalo, went into commercial production, and ended up being a tech.

This all got started because I got tired of going to crime scenes and seeing young people in distress. I asked the WKBW general manager: what could we do to help offset what we show on television every day? And he said, “You’re a mentor, you live in the community, why don’t you do something?” I knew a photographer at the station and a director, Tyrone Christopher, who is our current president, works at WIVB TV. We got together and decided to come up with a mentoring program. The station allowed me to run a youth after-school program and training program in the station as long as we incorporated and took out insurance; that was the beginning.

We started with interns from UB, Buff State, and churches and we invited young people in. Our goal was to lure them in with this possibility of a career in media. But really we were teaching life skills and changing behavior. That was the beginning. I mean, I can tell you, we eventually got a contract to create content that would air on the station and we split revenue, which is something that doesn’t happen with an employee of the station. But at that time, I was head of the union there and I was talking to them about what they didn’t have in terms of people. So I came up with a concept that we would create programming, target their late-night fringes, and we would let the kids develop the programming and we would target people who couldn’t find their way into the marketplace. So they would be able to have resume-type materials actually on their footage. We entered into a contract where we became the producers of urban independent programming and we did that programming for almost ten years. We used that revenue (besides reinvesting in young people), to actually raise the money to make a down payment and buy the theater. That was probably one of the first deals of its kind in the country where they entered into an agreement with a group to create urban programs. We were probably far ahead of our time.

The programming is still in place. We produce magazines. We produce all kinds of multimedia content online. We have produced television programming for WBBZ. We’re going to provide our programming to WKBW sometime this fall.

I’m the proud father of three boys. My youngest is 16. I’m a single dad. Which is something you probably don’t find very often in urban communities. But I’ve done very good with my children. They came later in my life. I spent much of my early life having a lot of fun and I never thought I was going to have children.

You learn a lot being a dad. It changes you. My youngest son really impacted me because a lot of his friends didn’t have fathers, so my house became a safe haven. I had ten to fifteen boys in my house for years. I started buying packages of hot dogs and hamburgers for these young men who didn’t have a father. I became like a community dad to a lot of them. A part of what our organization does and what I was doing back in the late nineties, is mentoring in the school system. We went into the roughest schools three times a week and we got the station to participate.

I just want to tell you one little thing — a part of what we were doing. Dan Montgomery was a black guy to own two hotels in Buffalo, one across the street from the central terminal on Curtis Street and then he had another on that same street from 1910 to 1954. I remember being a kid, we used to go to the Buffalo Braves games and then stopped at Dan Montgomery’s to buy steak. But most people only knew his wife Ann Montgomery from Little Harlem. But as I dug deeper into them and a lot of what we’re doing is based on what he did over 100 years ago. This black guy owned two hotels in Buffalo. That is amazing given that point in history. So they haven’t seen a project like what we’re presenting to them since Dan Montgomery.

The Moss Brothers owned the Apollo Theater in the late seventies and early eighties. So it’s been 40 years since a native African-American group has owned and operated a theater. But you don’t find an African-American group that owns a performing arts venue until you get to the Apollo in Harlem. And here’s one last particular thing that’s amazing about the Broadway theater. It’s one of only 27 historical African-American theaters still standing and left out of 2,500 that existed in 1955. So we have a national treasure here in Buffalo. There were 77 in New York State, now there are only two; the Apollo in Harlem and the Broadway. I knew none of this history until I started digging into it and researching it.

How did you learn about the CBREDT program?

I met with Royce Woods [from Evans Bank]. I was meeting with the schools back maybe two years ago and he came down to the office to talk about Evans Bank and he mentioned it [the program] to me. He said it would be a good idea. He looked at what we had and he says “Hey, you guys got a good start here, but if you get into this program, this will really help your cause. You learn a lot.” So I took him up on it. We met with him on a Tuesday. On Thursday I called the number and I was a day too late. The program had closed and I had missed the closing date by about a day. When the program opened the next year, I applied right away.

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

We officially bought the theater in 2008, but the economy and the government went through a shut down just shortly after that. So there wasn’t a lot going on, as you probably recall. It was originally a vaudeville theater built in 1914 by John Sattler. The Basil Brothers took it over in 1921. They had burlesque performances and the like prior to that, but from 1921 until 1965, it was primarily a movie theater. But I’ve been told that in the fifties they had a lot of performing acts along with movies, but primarily a movie theater.

Part of my goal is to better understand how the investment community looks at your project, how to better present your project to financial institutions, funders, how to speak the language that they understand, so they have confidence that you are capable of doing a great job of maintaining this property if they invest, loan, or donate money. So that has been my goal.

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

Well, it will give it a source of pride, because when we first bought that building, everyone thought we were crazy, laughed, and said, “Nothing’s in that neighborhood. Why would you do something like that?” But we knew that neighborhood had a lot of history and it was in a great location and then it was going to come back. So it’s a source of pride because when you look at a lot of things that are being developed at that time that we made the announcement that we were going to do it, there weren’t a lot of black people, to be honest, that were developing properties.

There were a few, not many. And because we were a youth-based group, that gave a lot of young people hope and that was what kept us going in some of the leanest days is the young people — their need for a place where they could nurture talent, because that’s how we looked at it. It will be a true community theater where this will be a play that whether you’re performance art, acting, multi-media, you will be able to come there and enhance your skills. So it will be a place that you would have pride in. It will be a place that could become an employer of yours. So that place and the significance in the community will be not only a source of jobs, but really more of a source of pride. Hey, here’s a group. They had an idea, had a concept. They lived in a community. They look like me. And they were able to develop this. And that really means a lot more than anything — when you can look a child in the face, especially when you look at the numbers. The economic numbers of a very distressed city, and it’s changing, it’s improving. But there’s nothing like having people that look like the people that can really say, hey, we have an idea, it will benefit you directly and have it come to light because now some other young kid will have a dream and say, “Oh, wow, I can make something happen because you did it.” So it becomes a source of where all can stem from.

The biggest challenge that we ever had was getting your own community to believe that it could happen because they had not seen anything happen that was done by people that look like them. That became a driving force–greater than I even imagined. And wherever I would go, people will be asking “when is it going to be ready?” But we knew when we bought the building it was going to take ten years because I understood how investment works. We had to wait for the neighborhood to begin to change a little bit. And that’s how it really works. So it’s really a beacon of light for a community that has gone through a lot. Broadway was a beautiful business district. It went down to almost absolutely nothing. And here is this young group coming along and say, “Hey, we got this multimillion-dollar project and it’s going to be a performing arts training/media center and we’re going to put multiple buildings on this site here.” So it’s almost like the S on Superman’s chest. Most people don’t realize it doesn’t stand for “Super.” It stands for hope. And that’s what the Broadway Theater really was, a symbol of hope.

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

We’ve learned so much.

I learned how you speak the language of people who work in the world of finance. Because, originally, when we were putting together our financial performance, you’re dealing with the political read, which looks at numbers differently than the financial agencies. It’s a little bit different.

The most important thing that I’ve learned is really you have to network, too. You can have a great idea and you’ve got to have your numbers setup correctly. It’s got to make sense numbers-wise, financially, but you have to be able to network. You’ve got to get a chance to know people. People are a sense of power. That was something that was reiterated quite a bit towards the end of the class. You’re learning how to put together a proposal. You’re learning about spreadsheets. You’re learning the rhetoric of financial institutions. But do you have the networking ability? Because when you get into development, there’s a whole development community you may not know coming from East Buffalo. I was very fortunate because I worked in television. So that allowed me to know a lot of different people. But generally, most Eastside developers coming out of our community don’t have a large network. So I would say that’s one of the most important things besides developing a good, solid business plan, a good solid financial plan, is being able to network. And not only with people who you don’t know in terms of outside the community, but I think what’s really important about this class that those who are in the class, we continue to network among ourselves.

There is a lot of camaraderie. There are a lot of us talking. Every entrepreneur thinks he or she is going through this by themselves and that’s not true. So you have to develop a support group. It’s like any other support group. There’s power in networking and supporting each other. So you can say I’m not the only one that’s going through that. Or you may know of somebody that has some money that they want to invest or donate and as a group. When you put your network together, you become like the Internet. You become a bigger web through which you can attract more opportunity. So, yes, we’ve become a better network in a group. We’re talking about building on that–not only with our cohort class, but to also build on that with the previous cohort class. So we create a networking event annually among us so we can continue to talk and that helps future cohort classes. As we become more successful, then we can help the institution with their cohorts. That’s my goal, to be able to come back and donate money.

There is a lot of camaraderie. There are a lot of us talking. Every entrepreneur thinks he or she is going through this by themselves and that’s not true. So you have to develop a support group.

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?

Of course, it’s a must. It’s mandatory because what you think you really know, you don’t know. And I thought I knew a lot. It is the recommended, number one priority for a community developer to enter into this program.

What are your immediate next steps?

Flynn Battaglia is our architect and we’re coming out of the stabilization phase. We’re going to begin front facade and brickwork. We continue to apply for every grant opportunity that we can find. The tax credits is probably the most important step. Our paperwork is being completed by Flynn Battaglia, which is headed by Nancy Redeye, our point of contact. Once that paperwork has gone through in the next few weeks, we will then pursue historical tax credits, which we think we will have access to, maybe about $3.3 million in historical tax credits. That is the greatest leverage of our project, is to qualify for historical tax credits, which is about 40% of your overall cost. And then you can start to leverage other things.

So those are our most immediate steps. The building will be remediated very soon. But the most important thing is to build on what stabilized back in the spring and winter months. Stabilized means any structural issues have been corrected. They go through what they call existing conditions. For every ten years your building hasn’t been worked on or heated, it has to go through existing conditions, which is not a cheap process. Probably about $20,000 for existing conditions. The architects will reexamine every inch of the building brick, steel, foundations. When they find something, then you have to find money to stabilize the building. So it’s not in danger of the front facade or bricks falling. Because we live in a climate where when it rains and then it freezes, then the ice bulges out and then it goes back into the spring. Every time that happens, it’s pushing the brick and mortar away from each other and eventually it will fall. If you don’t have that worked on and corrected and the building is not heated [there is the potential for problems].

We’re really excited on where we are at this moment. We’ve been talking to Northpark [Theater] — we share the same architect. So they’re landlocked — there are some things that we will partner with them on that we can do that they can’t do. So we’re really excited about working with Tommy Eoannou with their group over there.

What is your vision for the East Side?

To be a part of the ever-changing development. When something is being redeveloped, you have to participate in it. And so my vision is to make sure that the residents participate in the redevelopment of their own neighborhood. Because if you’re not participating, you’ll be displaced. I mean, there’s no other kind of words. It’s like the American system. And you’re either involved in it or it rolls over you. My vision is for them to participate with the bigger developers because there’s nothing wrong with developers. It’s what are you doing to participate with them? It’s like a guy sets up a big banking institution. Well, you don’t have the money to build that institution, but you do have the money to put in a coffee shop or to build a small apartment. You do have to build sort of the wraparound services that will benefit from an anchor. You may not have the “anchor-ability,” but you have the ability to say, okay, this place is going to bring more people. What can I provide that I can benefit from and my community can benefit from? So my vision for East Buffalo is to participate. And I think that’s the greatest thing about the American system – you’ve got to participate. You can’t wait and hope — that really doesn’t work.