Last of a four-part series

Howard A. Zemsky’s office is cluttered.

A couple of Tim Hortons cups are left near a couple of neckties – one red, one blue – strewn across his desk. Pictures of his wife and children sit on the window ledge, along with a few Larkin Soap boxes and a miniature replica of a Russer Foods truck – all interspersed among papers, maps, reports and books about Buffalo architecture and Buffalo’s waterfront.

It’s an eclectic assortment – and an indication of Zemsky’s busy life as the man many now see as Buffalo’s best hope.

Zemsky, 53, is the person Buffalo Niagara’s leadership community voted in a Buffalo News survey as displaying the most leadership when it comes to moving the region forward.

Talking with Zemsky for some two hours recently in a fourth-floor office at his renovated Larkin Building, it’s evident that this is a different kind of leader than the Buffalo community is accustomed to. In fact, this kind of hybrid – a successful businessman turned historically sensitive developer turned virtually full-time civic leader – may be unusual for any community.

Listening to Zemsky’s story, though, it’s clear this Brooklyn-born and Long Island-raised businessman always knew he’d end up living and working in Buffalo. There’s no way, though, that he could have known so many people in the Buffalo area would be counting on him to help save his adopted hometown.

“He has a huge stake in Western New York and how we move forward,” said Jeffrey M. Conrad, regional director of the Center for Employment Opportunities. “He’s a great person to have.”

“He’s a dreamer” who turns his visions into reality, said Eunice A. Lewin, a SUNY trustee who is also a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioner. “He listens. He has a total proven record.”

From Long Island to Buffalo

As a teenager, Zemsky recalled, he and his dad, Sam, often talked about how the two would one day work together. Once you finish college, Sam Zemsky told his son, you’ll work at our Buffalo company, Russer Foods.

Sam Zemsky was in the processed meats business. He owned Zee-best, a small delicatessen-meat distribution center in Brooklyn. In 1970, when son Howard was about 10, Sam Zemsky also bought a meat processing plant in Buffalo. The elder Zemsky traveled from one end of the state to the other for years, keeping the two businesses going.

“He was spending more time in Buffalo than he had imaged he would be,” Zemsky said of his father. “He spent 10 years sleeping in hotels and on a cot in his [Buffalo] office to make it work.”

It wasn’t long after Howard Zemsky graduated from Michigan State University – with a degree in marketing and having taken courses in meat science – that he moved into an apartment on North Street in Buffalo and began working at the family business on Fulton and Perry streets, known at the time as Russer Foods.

Howard Zemsky learned a lot about business during his early years with Russer Foods. He also went to the University of Rochester during that time and earned an MBA. Perhaps just as important, Zemsky traveled the country, visiting delicatessens his company served. He talked to store employees about deli meats and asked their views on his company.

“I learned some of the best ideas came from the deli clerks,” he said.

The lesson, he said, was the importance of being a good listener. Good ideas, he said, come from people of all ages, races, job statuses and incomes.

“If you exclude anyone based on anything, you are missing good ideas,” Zemsky said.

In those early years at Russer Foods, Zemsky recalled, he put a lot of hours in at the company. His wife, Leslie, whom he met at Michigan State, gets full credit for raising their three children, he says.

Still, as the years went on, Zemsky became increasingly interested in his adopted community. He wanted to get involved. He became a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra board of directors. He began making campaign contributions to political candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, at the local, state and federal levels.

He was invited – by former Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey – to serve on the boards of two architectural renovation projects Lipsey was involved in, the Darwin D. Martin House and the H.H. Richardson complex off Forest Avenue. A mutual friend suggested Zemsky for the posts, said Lipsey, who now considers Zemsky among his closest friends.

Involvement in those projects, Zemsky said, sparked an appreciation of architectural history, both from aesthetic and business standpoints. It helped him realize what was just outside his office window.

“It was my introduction to Buffalo history and architecture,” Zemsky said of his appointments to the Martin House and the Richardson boards. “I came to appreciate the assets in this community around historic architecture.”

Political contributions

Zemsky talks enthusiastically about his career, his love of historic architecture, particularly the Larkin Building, and his many civic roles, which include chairing the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and co-chairing the state’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, which is charged with deciding how to spend $1 billion Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised to help revive the region’s economy.

It’s only when the conversation turns to his political campaign contributions and political affiliation that Zemsky clams up a bit.

Until a few years ago, Zemsky was a registered Republican, having joined the GOP because of concerns with tax and competition issues, he said. Over time, Zemsky said, he became uncomfortable with the direction in which the national Republican Party was headed, particularly on social issues.

In addition, Zemsky noted, he lives in the City of Buffalo, where Democrats so outnumber Republicans that local elections are decided in the Democratic primary. And only registered Democrats get to vote in those elections. Given those two factors, Zemsky said, he changed his registration to Democrat a few years ago.

Zemsky volunteers that he voted for Republican George W. Bush once and Democrat Barack Obama twice.

“I am not partisan,” he said. “I support Democrats and Republicans.”

With votes, and with money.

Since 2000, Zemsky, his wife and his companies have contributed about $500,000 to political candidates and organizations of both parties, although more to Democrats than Republicans in recent years. The money went to candidates at every level, from mayor to president, according to state and federal campaign disclosure reports. Some of the biggest contributions went to governors.

Republican Gov. George E. Pataki received about $16,000; Democratic Gov. Elliott L. Spitzer, $75,000; Democrat Cuomo, $55,000.

Zemsky said he supports candidates he believes in.

“I was taking a keen interest in the community,” Zemsky said. “I saw the decline. We had a tough half century. I want to see better leaders and make changes.”

He didn’t want to discuss the topic any further, although he did acknowledge that there’s a common perception that campaign donations are sometimes made to gain access to elected officials.

Businessman to developer

Zemsky says he was ready for a change himself when an opportunity to sell Russer Foods cropped up in 1999. Zemsky sold, but stayed on for a three-year transition period. When the three years were up, he looked for something new to do. He opened a small private equity firm on Chippewa Street.

Then there was a fateful day in 2002.

“I came here one day, and the building was for sale,” he said, referring to the Larkin warehouse, on Exchange Street, which he used to see out the window of his Russer Foods office.

The 100-year-old building itself was empty and obsolete. Some 600,000 square feet of unused warehouse and manufacturing space. But that’s not what Zemsky saw. During his years with Russer Foods, Zemsky traveled to cities where old warehouses in historic neighborhoods were restored and became part of thriving, redeveloped business districts.

As he studied the Larkin Building, he learned the rich history of the Larkin neighborhood, which was part of Buffalo’s first industrial district in 1827, before the village of Buffalo incorporated into a city. The Larkin complex also has ties to architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora.

“You build on your strengths,” Zemsky said. “The great part of our past could be part of the future."

While “people looked at me like I was crazy,” Zemsky said, he used “tens of millions of dollars” of his own money to convert the run-down warehouse into the centerpiece of what would, over the years, be viewed as an urban renaissance in a once-forgotten neighborhood.

The Larkin Building is now an office mecca with its own bank, restaurants, day-care center, fitness center, conference center and private taxi service. The building is completely rented.

But Zemsky always knew a lone building would not succeed for long. Over the years, he bought up dozens of surrounding parcels and buildings, which, one by one, are being restored into commercial and office space in a neighborhood that has been christened “Larkinville.” Others are now buying and restoring nearby properties. And Zemsky is ready to add a residential component to the mix.

Reputation of success

Such success by a man willing to take a risk with his own money only added to Zemsky’s reputation as a successful businessman, community volunteer and philanthropist who also shares his wealth with politicians.

That reputation early on reached Spitzer, who named Zemsky to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in 2003. And Cuomo last year named Zemsky NFTA chairman.

Cuomo also selected Zemsky as co-chairman, with UB President Satish K. Tripathi, of the Regional Economic Development Council. The council’s job is to determine how to spend $1 billion Cuomo has promised to help revive the region’s economy.

Among those recommending Zemsky for that post was former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who is now regional president of the Empire State Development Corp., and is a longtime friend of Cuomo.

“Howard Zemsky is an enormously respected businessman in the community, who has great ideas, great vision, and is willing to put the time in to make a difference,” Hoyt said. “He’s the most unselfish man in Buffalo. Anything he does, regarding his volunteer work for the state, is driven by all the right reasons. He wants to be part of a renaissance of this community.”

As co-chairman of the council as well as head of the NFTA, Zemsky is, in fact, Cuomo’s businessman-on-the ground in Buffalo. It’s in that role that many local leaders hope Zemsky can now do for all of Western New York what he’s done for the Larkin District.

“Howard is a smart businessman who has a way about him that gets things done,” said developer Paul F. Ciminelli, president of Ciminelli Real Estate. “He is one of the most selfless guys you’ll ever meet. He does things in an unassuming way.”

“I have done many things with him,” said Lewin, from the NFTA. “I have shared with him how I feel about the East Side, minorities. He definitely thinks that’s an area we need to work on.”

“He’s open to different ways of looking at things,” added historic preservationist Tim Tielman, who has done work for Zemsky.

The future

Zemsky sounds hopeful of Western New York rebounding.

He calls Cuomo’s bottom-up approach to economic development – where local people and companies suggest what needs to be done, rather than government dictating ideas – a “sea change.”

He says the region must build on its strengths, which include its proximity to the Canadian border, its abundance of hydropower, its tourism, its medical campus, its many colleges and universities, and its legacy as a manufacturing center.

“You cannot build an economy on office buildings,” he said.

Zemsky spoke about the importance of preserving the region’s historical architecture and, at the same time, ending the sprawl that has gone unabated for decades in a region with a declining population. The sprawl, he said, has not only left abandoned buildings in the city and first-ring suburbs, but made it more difficult for people to get to jobs.

He also talked about the importance of streetscapes and the waterfront, as the region works to create an economy and environment that will keep young people here and bring back those who left.

‘“We’ve lost young people, and if we don’t change that, the population loss continues,” he said.

Zemsky spoke passionately about the need to build up public spaces that will attract the 20-to-40-year-old set and took aim at recent a proposal to build a football stadium on the outer harbor. He described such a project as a parking lot with a limited number of events per year.

“It’s ill-conceived,” he said. “We need to talk about what will appeal to young people. What will appeal to 20-to-40-year-olds?”

Zemsky also talked with passion about his dedication to revitalizing the Buffalo Niagara region through the Regional Development Council and the NFTA.

His work with those two agencies, as well as his positions as president of the Richardson Center and chairman of the Buffalo State College Council, takes up 90 percent of his time these days, Zemsky said. He has turned over virtually all of the day-to-day responsibilities of his Larkin development to a business partner.

“I feel I work for the governor now,” Zemsky said. “It’s amazing to be to be part of the sea change that is occurring. It’s an honor.

“We have so many assets,” he continued. “We can make it happen.”