By Benjamin Joe
The City of North Tonawanda has been working with the Lumber City Development Corp on a strategy called “NT Momentum.” The plan is currently in phase one of its master plan for the 546-acre study area that includes properties downtown and River Road.
Lumber City Development Corp is a non-profit dedicated to encouraging projects that will stimulate the economic and community development of North Tonawanda. It was created in 2004 by the City of North Tonawanda and, to this day, receives funds from the city budget – though much of its funding comes from grants.
“We are a local development corporation, which is a nonprofit specifically with a mission to further economic developments in our community,” said Mike Zimmerman, executive director of Lumber City Development Corp. “We work only in North Tonawanda, that’s our jurisdiction, and we’re not specifically a part of city government. We are a separate entity, but we are closely tied to the city and work with the city on a lot of things.”
“Lumber City, because of our connection with the city, has worked with the city on a lot of more municipal-related things, and one thing that we’ve assumed, over the years, is a strong role in a lot of the city’s master planning and strategic planning process,” Zimmerman said. “(As to) ‘NT Momentum,’ well – not to get too into the weeds – there’s a state program called the Brownfield Opportunity Area Program.”
Because the city fits into the description of a post-industrial community, North Tonawanda entered into the BOA in 2010. For the past decade, it has gone through two of the three steps of the program, pre-nomination study and nomination study, and is now in the implementation stage. This is where a more detailed description of “techniques and action necessary to implement the area-wide plan” is required. To do this successfully is one of the reasons “NT Momentum” was created.
“It (NT Momentum) is the master plan vision for the area that was defined (by BOA), which, for North Tonawanda, is Tonawanda Island, our downtown and the whole River Road corridor,” Zimmerman said. “That’s really the area that used to have the lumber industry, the Tonawanda iron works, the Buffalo Bullet plant, and all those big industrial uses were focused on that area.”
“What it’s really about is how do we make sure that we are transitioning this waterfront in a way that is beneficial to the public, accessible to the public, economically viable, successful, environmentally successful and sustainable – how do we capture that in one process?” he said. “It envisions us utilizing the waterfront as more of a destination for people to want to live, to want to bring a business, to want to visit. … The waterfront is a really unique asset and it’s the public’s. It’s everyone’s.
“As much as we recognize that waterfront property is really potentially valuable, it could be high-end apartments or real estate. We also want to make sure it’s never a kind of gated community that the public doesn’t have access to. We want people to come to our waterfront.”
Zimmerman said, through the completion of the master plan, the centerpiece of “NT Momentum,” it’s the perfect time for developers to come to North Tonawanda. He said there’s been a lot of interest by developers to create space for business and residential through mixed-use apartments along the waterfront and downtown areas.
“One thing we’ve really honed our focus on in the past couple years, and I think you’ll see a lot of growth is in the Oliver Street corridor,” he said. “There’s been a lot of change in the past few years, a lot of new businesses, a lot of people who are getting involved. There’s a merchants’ organization now – that there never was in the past. There’s a grass roots organization; there’s a community garden; there’s a lot of people who are getting passionate about their community, which is great, because those people are the ones you need. We try, as much as we can to help businesses and bring funding to the community, but you need the people who want to do it,” Zimmerman said.
In a nutshell, Zimmerman explained, Lumber City Development Corp’s mission is to “make North Tonawanda a better place,” specifically by working with existing businesses in the community and helping them stay and grow, or by bringing in new businesses and making them a part of that community.
“We work very closely with Niagara County and New York state,” he said, explaining what the organization can do for businesses. “There’s grant programs, there’s tax incentive programs and loan programs; and we work with all those.”
Zimmerman also said, although it was “case by case,” the nonprofit has built up funds over the years, specifically for lending small loans to start-ups and businesses that want to expand in North Tonawanda.
“A lot of times, entrepreneurs trying to start up can’t go to a bank. They don’t have the track record, they don’t have the history; or somebody is looking to do something beyond what their bank would traditionally help them with. We’re a good second option.”
Zimmerman also said Lumber City would apply to grants for businesses, as well as steer entrepreneurs toward its partners for help with business planning and training to help bring their idea into a reality.
“Niagara County has a great workforce development group,” he said. “There are a lot of things that we present to connect them with.”
“We would say (to entrepreneurs), ‘Let’s get a business plan process started, let’s get a mentorship started, there’s training classes that you should take, these kind of things, and then come back to us when you’re in a better position to make this happen,’ ” Zimmerman concluded. “Sometimes that happens quickly, sometimes it takes a long time.”