Ibrahim Cisse has no real ties to Bailey Avenue.
He didn’t grow up on Bailey, or the East Side of Buffalo, for that matter.
But the African immigrant, who was reared in affluence in the Ivory Coast, chose to buy a house and open a business in one of the area’s most economically distressed neighborhoods. And that was just the start.
In 2010, he became the owner of the dilapidated Uptown Theatre on Bailey. In 2012, he launched the Bailey Avenue Business Association, resolving to revive the entire dormant commercial district. And later this year, Cisse will open a Subway sandwich shop, putting seven to 10 people to work.
His unrelenting commitment to Bailey has put it on the road to recovery, albeit a slow one. He’s formed alliances with the University at Buffalo School of Management, city and state officials and various organizations, and the efforts are bearing fruit. A new UB training program for Kensington-Bailey business owners will graduate its first class this summer. A community art project in August will beautify the 30 to 50 abandoned storefronts with artists painting windows and doors on them.
Also, the BABA’s new partnership with University Heights Collaborative has resulted in a districtwide, 1,000-tree-planting effort, beginning this fall.
Cisse, 46, is a computer consultant by trade, working with various area companies. He also has operated ABC Technology Services on Bailey since 2004 to fill a void of computer repair and sales services in the neighborhood.
Emma Sapong: Why do you care so much about Bailey Avenue? What drives you?
Ibrahim Cisse: I’m part of this community. I live in this community. I bought my house here and have my business here. And I see the potential the district really can offer. And somebody has to try to drive the change. In any community, one of the main things is the commercial corridor.
If development happens there, it changes it totally. If the commercial strip is not developed, people are not going to think about moving into that area. You look at Hertel, you look at Elmwood. Before they became what they are, their vibrant business districts attracted people to move into those areas. But this area has a lot to offer. You have UB nearby, the Thurway is minutes away. The airport is 5 minutes away. A lot of things are just 5 to 10 minutes distance. Bailey is offering a lot and people are not aware of it.
ES: Why is that?
IC: The negative press and negative impression of our district. But in the last year, we’ve had more positive press than we’ve had negative press. Because it used to be all negative, negative all the time. Now we’re getting some good press with the things we’re doing, so it’s turning around. I get a lot of calls now from all over the city from people trying to find out what we’re doing. The Black Chamber of Commerce, the Jefferson Business Association, the Medical Campus, they’ve all reached out to us. They want to know how they can help us, how we can help them or both.
ES: Do you feel like the city has forgotten about Bailey?
IC: Yes, but we haven’t had leaders to really stand up for Bailey. We never had a council member, no association, to do that. Elmwood is organized and various council members have gone after it. That’s never been the case here. People come here they just take advantage of the neighborhood, but they really don’t fight for any kind of development. There is an injustice.
Throughout the city there’s development everywhere except for the East Side. Everywhere. Think about it. Do you really have to tell leadership that this area needs development? Do we need to do that? Honestly, we don’t. But why hasn’t it been done. Most of the leaders who come to power do a little bit, get a pension and get out of office. And business owners get complacent and expect no more than the basic. There are so many nonprofits that take advantage of the fact this neighborhood is poor. And they get funding from the federal government because it’s a poor neighborhood. These groups wouldn’t survive if the community wasn’t poor, so they have no interest in seeing the neighborhood really develop.
ES: It’s been two years since you founded BABA. How do you feel about the organization and the future of Bailey?
IC: A lot has changed for the better. You have less kids standing on the corners like it used to be. We do have a lot of new businesses that came to the district. When we first started, I would be at meetings by myself, but now were getting 30 to 40 people at every meeting. We weren’t incorporated but now we are incorporated. And we’ve filed for 501c3 (nonprofit) status. We’re on the right path.
Still there is a lot of work to be done, but we’re on the right path. It’s us now taking ownership instead of leaving it to others to decide what they want to give us or do for us. Instead it’s us coming together and telling them what we need and want. We are trying to lead instead of follow, be proactive instead of passive. It’s a challenge because the community is not used to it. A lot of business owners are accepting of the status quo because they’ve dealt with it for a long time.
ES: How has your work with the BABA impacted your career and work?
IC: It has affected my business. I’ve lost customers I had for many years. It’s just one of those things. You have a meeting and you can’t be there when your customer needs you. It has happened several times like that. But I’m trying to balance the organization and my work a lot better. At first I had to put all my time into the organization, but there’s more involvement now. It’s no longer just me.
ES: What is your vision for the Uptown Theater?
IC: It will have 300 seats, a deck platform for tables. The use will be multipurpose. It can be any kind of live entertainment, fashion show, speaker, wedding, church function.
ES: How could the theater change the perception and improve the community?
IC: It could bring huge change. First of all, it’ll keep money in the community. Instead of money going to Cheektowaga or Amherst, it’ll stay here in the district. Two, we’ll be able to bring people from the outside into the community. It could attract more businesses that would tie in to the theater. There are already groups that want to use the theater. So many groups have called, like the Nickel City Opera.
ES: But what about crime?
IC: If you go back three years, this place used to have a shooting almost daily or weekly. The last year or so, there has been a major decrease. Not only with the activity that’s going on with the organization, but also people are now getting involved and calling 311 and 911. We’re asking them to do that all the time. The police are proactive instead of reactive, and that’s made a difference.
ES: Between the organizations and your businesses, how are you able to manage them all?
IC: My parents ran different businesses in Ivory Coast. They owned acres of farmland with rice, cocoa and coffee. They also had pharmacies, gas stations, grocery stores, a transportation business and a real estate company. And they employed hundreds of people. So I grew up in a business environment. And my parents were able to manage and keep track of everything. It’s just in me; it’s what I’m used to.