Bashar Issa and The Statler: A Lesson For Buffalo

28 Feb

issa

“Cherish the past, adorn the future, construct for the future” – Bashar Al-Issa

When Bashar Issa exploded on the scene in June of 2006, we were all pretty excited that one of the most beautiful buildings in Downtown Buffalo was to be renovated by an out-of-town developer with money and vision.

statlerhotelbuffalo

Issa was exciting.  2006 was the peak of the “hopeful years” when it seemed Buffalo was ready to slough off it’s usual skepticism and embrace a project.  We were trying new things, we lost a few pounds and we were looking for Mr. Right.  Issa’s decision to buy the Statler and and invest $80MM to make it a world class hotel and condo project seemed a validation of the things we all knew about Buffalo.  Someone finally came along and told us we were pretty.  At first, even a cynic like me was taken with the guy.

By January of 2007, I started to have my doubts about Issa.  He hadn’t announced much of a plan for the Statler, and was immediately invested in drumming up national support for the project with his interest in buying the Central Terminal, his master plan for the City of Buffalo, his 48 Story City Tower and his Statler on The Sea.  He was trying really hard to look successful without accomplishing much.  I grew suspicious as the hero worship grew to a fever pitch with weekly updates from another local website as to the proclivities of Mr. Issa.  I thought we were investing too much in his mere presence.  We were like a girl who didn’t want to think that her boyfriend could possibly be a douchebag, even though she was starting to see his real self.  My comments from January of 2007:

When the Statler is completed and I see cranes in the air around the site for the Buffalo City Tower, I’ll thank Mr. Issa for his efforts. Until then I’ll applaud Rocco Termini, Sam Savarino, Carl Paladino, Ben Obletz, Paul Ciminelli, and Carl Montante for completing projects that make Buffalo a better place to live, work, and play.

I hope that issuing a simple “Welcome to Buffalo, Mr. Issa” will suffice…

I think we know that from this point, it was pretty much all downhill.  There were project delays, incremental progress and the completion of new elevator doors and discussion of new windows at the hotel seemed to be enough to throw New Buffalo into a near orgasmic fit.  “He loves me, he really loves me!!!”

While a Jake Halpern article in the Wall Street Journal seemed to upset many locals, Halpern turned out to be quite prophetic, the friend who finally sits you down and tells you your boyfriend is sleeping with six of your sorority sisters:

The danger is that Buffalo’s optimism regarding Mr. Issa will become a kind of clinging, desperate hope. This hard-luck city is always looking for redemption: redemption from poverty, from four straight Super Bowl losses, from the loss of the steel mills, from the bad stereotypes about the weather, and from the opportunists who, like myself, move away from the city in its hour of need.

This need makes someone like Mr. Issa more appealing because it casts him as a hero in the classic American storyline. He’s the sheriff sauntering into town who, in John-Wayne-like fashion, will restore justice, dignity and prosperity.

The problem is that waiting for a John Wayne figure can create complacency and obscure the reality that redemption will not come easily or at once in the form of deus ex machina.

Progress slowed to a crawl and whispers began that Issa was in way over his head.  By January of 2008, the bloom was off the rose as the progress had ground to a halt and Mr. Issa’s workers walked off the job site due to low pay and unsafe working conditions.  News began to leak from his properties in England that he was having cash flow problems and that someone had died on one of his job sites.  Allegations of poor working conditions existed there as well.  By the fall of 2008, Issa announced his intention to sell the hotel and sold the plot of land for his invisible skyscraper.

invisible_skyscraper

After all of that, Issa had a deal worked out with a Canadian firm to buy The Statler, but he fucked that up, too.

Now, here we are in February of 2009 and The Statler Hotel will probably be put into receivership.  The catering and event planning company which occupies The Statler has outstanding claims, is losing business and the building is bleeding money.  In fact, the lights might be turned off next month if some sort of resolution can’t be arranged.

Day-to-day control of Buffalo’s floundering Statler Towers could be in the hands of a court-appointed receiver as early as Tuesday.

Longtime Statler manager John Gingher testified the Statler is running at a deficit of as much as $75,000 a month, with just $19,000 in cash on hand. He told the court there is a strong probability the 18-story Niagara Square landmark could “go dark” within 30 days due to a pile of more than $1 million in bills, including some $400,000 owed to utilities.

Quite the sordid tale, eh?

Did Issa set out to fail?  Of course not.  I’m sure he saw an opportunity to get a great building on the cheap that he could renovate and flip for cash.  He would create artificial demand by announcing big plans to an uncritical local press.  He would build public support working his PR through that uncritical press and either pump and dump the property for a short term gain or eventually finish it and hopefully break even by operating a hotel and selling a few condos.  I tend to think it was more a function of the former than the latter, but that’s just me. In retrospect, why did we think that a privately financed $80MM project could provide the necessary return in a downtrodden market?  Were we high?

Alan, Marc and I are usually mocked for being negative when new projects are announced.  While others tend to focus on the design of new projects and lend a critical eye in that manner, we openly wonder if the project is feasible.  Does the project have the right funding?  Does the market support the project?  In this case, we didn’t do it soon enough.  Would it have made a difference if we did?  I don’t know, but I think we overinflate our value if we assume we would have.

So, when projects are announced and pretty diagrams drawn in Google Sketchup are unveiled, forgive me if I am skeptical.  I think we all need to be skeptical.  We need to be supportive of new ideas, yet critical.  As a community we should not be cheerleaders because someone validates us.  We should hold people accountable, measure progress and demand results.  We shouldn’t play the patsy for a snake oil salesman who is looking to make a buck with his Daddy’s money.

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7 Responses to “Bashar Issa and The Statler: A Lesson For Buffalo”

  1. Libby February 28, 2009 at 12:38 am #

    Thanks for posting this. I was unaware that the situation with the Statler had become so dire. Some fond memories there. I used to go to the old Dave and Len’s Deli there who had great corned beef sandwiches.

    When I left Bflo in 1992, there was some kind of chatter about a waterfront amusement complex. I had heard this many times in my youth, and was always disappointed, so I mostly ignored it. Upon return to Bflo in 2003, I turned on the news the first day back, and what was one of the lead stories? Some waterfront amusement park. I turned off the tv.

  2. RaChaCha February 28, 2009 at 4:05 pm #

    A great, spot-on, summation, Geek.

    As for me, my spider sense first activated during Buffalo Old Home Week in 2007. Bashar had been asked to speak at the “venue formerly known as The Church” about his Buffalo city plan. If memory serves (help me out, Geek), for 10 or 15 minutes he basically said “yup, we’re gonna do a plan” (or perhaps it was “yup, we did a plan” — hard to remember now) — but not a single specific. I was still kinda new in my relationship with Buffalo at that point, so a bit shy about speaking up, but several people I spoke with after the presentation (including Marti) shared my “that emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, was he?” impression.

    Then, last year, Issa agreed to speak to Buffalo Tours docents at one of the training sessions that was being held at the Statler. When Todd Mitchell posted an article on Buffalo Rising informing the public (who could attend the presentations) that Issa would speak, I made a private bet with myself that Issa would back out as soon as he found out that the public/media had been tipped off. Sure enough, Issa managed to “miss his plane” and backed out at the last minute: http://archives.buffalorising.com/story/bashar_issa_will_speak

    I don’t think he’s been in Buffalo since then, and don’t expect he ever will be.

    The whole thing hearkens back to Esmonde’s occasional “visits” to hardboiled cynic “Buffalo Joe.” I think Esmonde last called on Joe in October, 2006 — search for it in here: http://corp.buffalonews.com/services/community/education/documents/ArticlesDDMFLW.pdf — flush with the confidence of what you call, Geek, “the hopeful years.”

    Well, I think “Buffalo Joe” is hunkered in his dark corner of the coffee shop in anticipation of another visit from Donn.

  3. Mark March 11, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    that mention about 2006 being the “hopeful years” is interesting. someone should do a post about that. its like, blogs came about and we all realized the amount of people who care about buffalo weren’t so few in numbers after all and since it turns out so much of us care, we can make more people realize it AND change buffalo for the better! and then the statler and am&a’s got bought in the same week!

    i realized issa was a fraud when his statler website had a section devoted to media coverage of the statler. it had my post which was basically “OMG someone bought the statler, i’m so happy!” To put that on your site and on a display inside the statler lobby was 1. embarrassing to me and 2. far from being media coverage you want to show off. i’m sure he got off on posts like that though.

  4. Sam Stevens April 15, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Dear all.
    Please excuse my frustration at your degrading points toward Mr Issa. I have known Mr Issa some 10 years now on a professional and personal nature and in all that time I have never thought of him as a crook or a fraud as you put it.
    In fact I can only give good words for the man. It is not Mr Issa’s fault that the market has made a turn for the worse nor is he to blame that funding for such projects has become extinct. I am a property developer based in the UK and have similar projects that are the supposed saviour of towns and cities but I too am struggling to obtain finance to build them even though the local people and governments are behind them.
    I am a strong believer that Mr Issa has been dealt a duff hand with this current market and when the time is right he will put your remarks to shame.

  5. kelly April 16, 2009 at 9:53 am #

    Saying the economy is to blame for Mr. Issa’s problems with the Statler Renovation is laughable. He was having financial problems long before that. His projects in the UK were built cheaply and with no regard for safety codes. Aside from the elevators he put into the Statler what else did he accomplish. He hung onto this property even while he had offers to buy it but stubbornly refused knowing he had no intention of funding this project. It is said he hasn’t put a penny into the property since last summer. In the mean time this historic landmark and the tenants in the building have suffered tremendously. Mr. Issa doesnt care about buffalo or the people that live here.

  6. kelly April 16, 2009 at 9:58 am #

    He has shown a complete disregard for our labor laws and has completely ignored the court proceeding that has been going on here. Why not sell the Statler when you have fair offers coming in? I’ll guess because he knew the money would go to pay off his creditors in the UK and he wouldn’t get a dime. So better to let the building go dark. Hopefully with this bankruptcy filing some of the damage he did can be undone and it will go to people who actually care about this historic landmark and the people in it.

  7. kevin April 16, 2009 at 10:51 am #

    Bashar’s sister, Alaa Alessa, has been in buffalo on at least three occasions since last summer. She met with several city officials and tenants. She told people that her brother had no money to put into this project. But wanted an astronomical amount to purchase the property. She also wanted the tenants to agree to move to lower floors and if they didn’t like that they were told to leave. The above poster is correct in saying that they were more than happy to let the building go dark. It is funny to be that Mr. Stevens can still sing mr. Issa’s praise, obviously just another person Bashar snowed.

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