BY T.W. HEWITT
The popular Buffalo businessman Eddie Egriu is being urged to challenge Conservative Democrat Brian Higgins, an entrenched establishment figure in local politics for nearly three decades. For the last few months operatives have whispered that Higgins is seriously considering retirement.
Egriu is firmly in the Sanders’ faction of the Democratic Party. He has already called for the legalization of marijuana for recreational use by adults; an end to the over incarceration of minority youth; an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; universal single payer healthcare; federal investment for hard hit post-industrial cities and towns; strict limits on agricultural chemicals; and a slew of new environmental protections.
When you take a look at the city’s forgotten neighborhoods, I can’t help but to think about all the work that we have to do — and the potential of what we can accomplish, if only our broken government would fully fund what needs to be done.
I want so much to encourage our young people to come and rebuild our neighborhoods — especially the neighborhoods that have suffered most from the banking system’s structural disinvestment that doomed too many of our neighborhoods.
We need to help young people open up our store fronts and take advantage of all the tax breaks that are provided by our state and national programs to rebuild our homes and business corridors. My motto has always been, ‘bring it, and it will work.’
You just have to be willing to work hard enough to make it work.
2. What is it like to do business in Buffalo, where the city has declined for nearly 55 consecutive years?
It’s tough, but not hopeless. Even if you were to open a business in a very successful town or city, it doesn’t mean it’s not hard. You still have to work hard at any investment you make to keep it afloat and to make it more successful.
It is even more difficult to go into transitional neighborhoods — where all of the problems of crime, underfunded schools, and segregation make things harder — and to turn these areas around in a sustainable way.
As a community we are only investing public resources on the waterfront and, haplessly, expect Buffalo to be thriving when so many people in the heart of our city are unemployed. The progress we see in downtown is doomed to fail because we are just moving tenants around from one building to another.
The real solution is to focus on making our neighborhoods safer and our schools better. It’s about taking our youth of the streets and getting them into good jobs.
3. You helped get the Joe & Gino’s Pizzeria chain off the ground, and many other businesses. What lessons did you learn from that experience?
When I first came to Buffalo in 1983, downtown was almost a ghost town and no one was interested in making investments. I was a contrarian: I saw hope and opportunity; I saw a chance to prove myself.
I have always said, “bring it, and it will work.” Here we are 33 years later and Joe & Gino’s is still open and very successful! Because of that first location in the Main Place Mall, I am proud to say that we have a total of 5 locations in Buffalo and one location in North Tonawanda. The company continues to grow.
I can almost claim that we brought New York style pizza to Buffalo.
I pride myself in thinking about the street corners that I have been able to improve. The House of China at Broadway and Jefferson used to be a garage and I converted it into a restaurant. Gas Mart Convenience Market & Gas at Jefferson and South Division; GRT Plaza on Jefferson near High Street; Mandela’s Gas & Convenience at Jefferson and East Ferry; and Avenue Pizza on Ferry.
Like I said, ‘bring it, and it will work!’
I can’t help but to have enormous optimism, even in the face of a tough landscape.
4. How has the City changed since you first moved here in 1983? Are we headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?
I cannot deny that downtown has changed, at least for our local 2% percenters. Yes, after 14 years of planning we have an ice rink in the shape of a canal. Yes, we have some heavily subsidized building, which has been good for the local construction industry. Yes, the medical corridor has been expanding and we all pray that it will be able to spawn the medical advances and improvements in care on which these investments have been premised.
But we still have a homicide epidemic, among the highest concentrations of poverty in the country, and the worst rates of cancer. Our schools are under threat of state receivership or even a federal takeover. We have a central city that is rebounding, but at the expense of displacing the poor and minorities in an ethnic cleansing of the central city.
Our politicians have drawn beautiful pictures on the wall of the Buffalo we all want to believe in; but those pictures are designed to fool the rest of us that we are doing better than before. That’s not true. We are still losing residents at a rate of 10,000 per year. We are still among the top 10 poorest cities in the country; among the 10 worst cities for violent crime; and among the most racist regions in the country.
Nothing will change unless we change the way our political system works.
I will not blame one or two politicians, though some are more corrupt than others. We have to attack the system because our elected representative believe corruption is the name of the game. I can’t count how many times fellow businessmen have said to me, “that’s just how Albany — or Washington — works.”
Our Congressman believed that funds that were supposed to go to rehabilitating dilapidated homes in struggling neighborhoods would be better spent downtown. I call this ‘robbery without a gun.’ The needs of the people are the last thing that the politicians care about. We need a Congressman who is willing to put the neighborhoods first.
With the money we have spent over the years, we could have already rebuilt Buffalo, but we squander massive levels of public resources year after year on programs that are designed not to work — precisely because politicians put their own interests of self survival ahead of intelligent policies and programs that actually work.
We could have rebuilt so many neighborhoods. Just look at what we did with People United for Sustainable Housing when I was a project director from 2006 to 2009. At the time the politicians thought that PUSH was just a noise maker, but because we were able to capacity build and execute projects independently, they have renovated dozens of houses and have become the shining star of grassroots community development in Buffalo. They turned a drug infested area on 19th Street and Massachusetts Avenue and transformed it into a prime location.
We need the same can-do mentality on the East Side, in South Buffalo, and across the city.
5. What does this region need to do to finally turnaround in a sustainable way?
On the job training, better education, and higher paying wages.
We should lead the East Coast and bring the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. Small business owners want to share in the experience of better paid communities that are happier, healthier, more beautiful places for everyone.
We need a genuinely progressive approach and finally move forward.
And, most importantly, we need to make sure that we never leave anyone behind.