A not-for-profit business that salvages vintage materials off old houses and buildings – from doorknobs and radiators to spindles and leaded-glass windows – is in trouble.
It remains to be seen whether Buffalo ReUse – with its onetime-groundbreaking green practices and troubled history – can salvage itself.
Buffalo ReUse began in 2008 at 298 Northampton St. as the first organization in the city to deconstruct homes slated for demolition and make the contents available for sale. But deconstruction has pretty much ground to a halt over the past three years, and the business relies mostly on donated materials.
The warehouse-sized building Buffalo ReUse moved into in 2011 at 296 Ferry St., just east of Jefferson Avenue, was shut down in July due to fire code violations. Debts that appear to be in excess of $100,000 are mounting. And there is no staff.
Volunteers have tried to keep the business afloat by holding weekend sales outside, but the colder weather of the season could soon make that impossible.
“It’s certainly our intention to stick around,” said Vince Kuntz, the board’s president, adding that his colleagues want Buffalo ReUse to continue. “Companies evolve, and what the form will be over the long term I don’t know. But the function of bringing together building and other materials to be reused is something that should continue.”
But Erie County Clerk records show the debts are severe – and mounting.
They include a federal tax lien for $45,226. Then there is $46,192.23 owed to the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, a debt that Buffalo ReUse is contesting. And there is $37,244 in back taxes to the State of New York. In addition, a trash removal bill for $5,851 remains unpaid, a storage company is owed $3,618 and the State Department of Labor is waiting for $6,371.
Kuntz said there is no timetable for when the organization will be able to get back into the building and resume operations, nor are there plans to declare bankruptcy.
Yet selling wares out in the cold on weekends is taking its toll, even if the Saturday and Sunday sales have been better than expected.
“A typical Saturday selling on the sidewalk for us is almost as financially lucrative as a Saturday when the whole store was open,” Kuntz said.
At the same time, the store, which is also an electronics recycling station, went two summer months without income.
Kuntz said ReUse improved its annual financial performance before the shutdown, partly by lowering operating costs, and became more particular in accepting donations to reduce the cost of landfilling those that didn’t sell.
“We’re making things work better, and if we can make that stabilize, then there is a possibility of growing again,” Kuntz said.
The organization could make a big dent in its debt by selling a former HSBC Bank branch building in Schiller Park donated two years ago. The property is listed at $60,000, and the proceeds, Kuntz said, would be used to pay down the debt.
Debt has been a constant for years at Buffalo ReUse. So has turmoil.
The organization was forced to move to its current location after eviction proceedings commenced for falling behind in rent and alleged damage to the Northampton building and parking lot.
Founding member Michael Gainer, whose vision propelled the group, was fired as executive director in 2009, rehired as program director and fired again the following year, leading to the resignations of a half-dozen staffers and charges that the board communicated poorly with staff and lacked transparency.
Community projects were discontinued, and the group’s expertise in deconstructing buildings largely left with Gainer.
The organization received a two-year, $200,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation in 2008 and 2009, but Gainer’s reinstatement alienated the funder.
Michele Johnson, another founding member and a former board member, is critical of how the board has operated and the way the store was run – a view echoed by two former staff members who asked that their names not be used.
Johnson is also frustrated that an annual meeting called for in the bylaws wasn’t held in September.
“The debt is mounting and mounting and mounting. The membership needs to know if there is a plan,” Johnson said.
Still, she, like Kuntz, said there is a need for Buffalo ReUse to continue on the East Side.
“Living there, I see so many people in the community who need to find lower-cost items because they don’t have the means to go to Home Depot,” Johnson said.