Russ Conrad wants to put his money where his mouth and his clients are: in real estate.
The Lewiston money manager, whose private-equity firm specializes in sophisticated real estate investments and transactions, is also joining the region’s growing ranks of small-scale real estate developers.
Over the past few years, the 42-year-old investor has purchased four properties in the heart of the Niagara County village, putting not just dollars but his own time and sweat equity into converting and upgrading aging buildings into new uses.
“It’s a great place to invest,” he said. “It’s a great community to live in. It has a good quality of life. It’s safe, and we see more, younger developers coming to town and investing in projects.”
Now he’s moving into Buffalo real estate. A couple of weeks ago, he purchased a three-story building at 884 Main St. in downtown Buffalo, former home of Roxy’s bar. He plans to convert the building, located across from the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, into a mixture of residential and commercial space aimed at the medical community.
Additionally, he’s buying five single-family homes in the Larkvinville district east of downtown Buffalo and two on South Park Avenue just south of downtown. In both cases, he said he sees opportunities in the future for commercial redevelopment of the sites, although he doesn’t have anything planned.
And he’s just starting. “I’d like to do more, and I’d like to really go after Buffalo for the next 10 years,” he said. “I love Buffalo. I’m going in strong. I think Buffalo has got great promise.”
Conrad – a West Valley native and Buffalo State College graduate – co-founded financial advisory firm Princeton Equity Partners LLP. His partner, Michael DiGaetano, works in Austin, Texas, and they also have an office in Naples, Fla., with plans for a fourth in New York City.
The firm, which specializes in alternative investments, helps clients with tax-free exchanges of “like” properties and raises capital for real estate investment trusts on Wall Street. Conrad has developed ties to Nicholas S. Schorsch, chairman and CEO of American Realty Capital, the nation’s largest publicly traded REIT with over 3,700 properties – some here.
But he also has deep roots in real estate, having grown up in a family that owns, manages and develops properties, including farms, dairies, a gravel pit in Springville, and “numerous” McDonald’s franchises downstate. A relative also owns a defense contracting business, and his uncle is a mason.
“So I always knew that real estate was a good investment,” he said, citing the “durable” income, especially in a community like Lewiston and Western New York in general, where values don’t fluctuate that wildly.
“I’ll never be a Paladino or a Ciminelli,” he said, citing prominent developers Carl Paladino and Paul Ciminelli, “but there’s room for the smaller guys.”
Conrad’s first project, his $275,000 purchase of the Village Bake Shoppe building at 417 Center St. in Lewiston in 2006, came “out of necessity” because he had extra cash and “had to park the capital somewhere.” He has spent $50,000 on tiles, facade, an upgraded kitchen and seating area, and plans to put in a second floor with two apartments.
Last summer, he and Mascaro Concrete owner Randy Sinatra bought the former Brochey’s Automotive building at 800 Center St. for $440,000. They received several inquiries, and will convert the 1,800-square-foot building into a dental office for a Buffalo doctor.
He and Sinatra are also partners in the purchase of 120 North 7th St., a circa-1840s former home-turned-psychology practice behind his firm’s office. They are redoing the 4,000-square-foot run-down building and converting it into four upscale apartments, while keeping the “original charm.”
Finally, late last year, he bought the former Collins Day Care building at 716 Center St. that now houses his firm. He paid $330,000 and invested another $50,000 to renovate the 3,960-square-foot building, tearing down some partition walls, putting up new offices, upgrading the facade to stone and new siding, and replacing aging carpeting and linoleum inside with new ceramic tiles, hardwood floors and carpeting.
Now he has his eyes on Buffalo. “I always wanted to be invested in Buffalo, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know where to go. Now I’ve got a pretty good plan of attack,” he said. “We’ll continue to buy in areas where we continue to see jobs, education and technology. That drives real estate prices.”
The five houses on Van Rensselaer Street are right next to a parking lot for the Larkin at Exchange Building, whose redevelopment by Howard Zemsky has revitalized that area. Meanwhile, the two houses on South Park are next-door to each other, and near land already owned by Paladino. “They’re great pieces of real estate to own,” Conrad said. “There might be good commercial opportunities to redevelop in the next three to five years.”