April 8, 2021

Full Steam Ahead at Buffalo’s Northland Workforce Training Center

Nestled between railroad tracks, a highway, and a hospital campus stands 683 Northland, now the Northland Workforce Training Center of Buffalo, New York. The large industrial structure’s original sections were built in 1910-1911 for Niagara Machine & Tool Works, a sheet metal business that fabricated equipment, appliances, and automotive materials. Like the fate of many Rust Belt manufacturing and industrial buildings, operations closed in 1999 and the building sat vacant for nearly two decades.

The roughly 240,000-square-foot facility consists of a few structures: the four-story office building facing Northland Avenue, two large sections of saw-tooth manufacturing spaces, a crane bay, and two Midcentury, multi-use structures on the back of the facility, abutting the railroad tracks. And while the factory is just under four miles from the city center, a fair number of historic worker’s cottages are situated directly across the street. In 2014, conditions would be right for the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation to begin a historic preservation and workforce development project that saw the potential of this mixed-use, underserved area.

Black and white image from 1921 of the interior of a factory building in Buffalo. In this image you can see machinery.

photo by: Internet Archive, Public Domain Mark 1.0

Interior view of the Niagara Machine and Tool Works in 1921.

 Black and white image of a factory building. Rectangular in shape with big windows. From 1921

photo by: Internet Archive, Public Domain Mark 1.0

Exterior view of the Niagara Machine and Tool Works in 1921.

Completed in 2019, the Northland Workforce Training Center honored the history of this space by rehabbing the complex into a center for the training and development of a “skilled workforce to meet the needs of the advanced manufacturing and energy sectors. The center helps innovation-driven businesses excel by partnering with their internal manufacturing, engineering, and R&D teams,” according to the National Trust Community Investment Corporation’s Qualified Low-Income Community Investment of the Year award.

So often in historic preservation, we measure the success of industrial and manufacturing spaces in terms of adaptive reuse—the dramatic changes between the old and the new—but this project uniquely embraced the space’s original purpose. For the rehabilitation component of the project, three of the Niagara Machine & Tool Work’s buildings were considered part of the historic designation: the office headquarter & main factory (constructed between 1910-1981), the pattern shop (built 1913), and the metal fabricating plant (built 1953). In other words, developers had access to funding for the preservation of these buildings.

Exterior of a former factory building with big windows at night with yellow light glowing externally.

photo by: Buffalo Urban Development Corporation

Exterior view of the Northland Workforce Training Center at night.

"We're located right in a population center that has access to public transportation, in a predominantly minority and African American neighborhood, so just by default where we're located is eliminating one of the biggest barriers that many people face when it comes to enrolling and completing post-secondary education and finding employment opportunities,” says Stephen Tucker, president & CEO, Northland Workforce Training Center. “Placemaking and equity was always at the forefront of the business plan.”

About 40%, or 100,000 square feet, of the site is dedicated to the anchor institution, the Northland Workforce Training Center. The NWTC provides manufacturing skills training to residents so that they can secure employment while fulfilling the workforce needs of the local manufacturing economy. The center offers offices, classrooms, and lab space, with for-credit, certificate, and degree program instruction provided by SUNY institutions including Erie Community College, Alfred State College, and Buffalo State College.

Students are trained in machinery, welding, and other types of work needed with local manufacturers, utilities, and the growing clean/green energy sector. Mindful of the historic lack of diversity and access in the manufacturing and energy workforce, the center focuses on serving students of low-income and other underrepresented groups, specifically the “unemployed, returning citizens, refugees, and recent immigrants.

Two years into the initiative, more than 150 students have completed training and obtained full time employment, with all positions being either union jobs or compensated at the prevailing wage. In addition, student diversity benchmarks were met, including 91% identified as racial minorities and 10% identified as women.

The Northland Workforce Training Center is the anchor project for the Northland Corridor Redevelopment Project, which is one component of the state’s “Buffalo Billion” strategy to direct investment and new opportunities to the City of Buffalo, particularly the east side. The initiative’s success reveals the strengths in governmental and industrial coalition-building, as well as the benefits to strategic financial collaboration.

A group of students taking part in welding training at Northland Workforce Training Center

photo by: Northland Workforce Training Center

Students at Northland Workforce Training Center receive training in a variety of trades, including welding.

The NWTC project offers a model of how to utilize numerous incentives and opportunities for both workforce training and historic preservation. The $110 million dollar project received nearly 30% of funding from theNational Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) through federal and state historic tax credit and federal New Markets Tax Credit investments. Additional funding sources included Brownfield tax credits, Community Development Block Grants, and additional New Markets Tax Credit investments (via the Building America CDE, part of the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust).“The revitalization of the Northland Workforce Training Center is a shining example of how historic preservation deployed as community development financing can provide resources for current community needs while preserving and celebrating a piece of local history,” said NTCIC President Merrill Hoopengardner.

And as we reckon with equity and justice as a country, projects like the NWTC highlight how historic preservation can be wielded as a tool for equitable development. Example case studies from cities across the U.S. are available in a recent report, Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as a Path for Equity, funded in part by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

As Rebecca Gandour, vice president, finance & development for the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, says, "What I'm most proud of is seeing how many people come into Northland and are touched by the project...it's in a part of our city that had experienced years of hardship and disinvestment, and now you have visually something for them to see and get excited about."

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Jordan Ryan is an architectural historian, archivist, and principal owner of The History Concierge LLC. Their scholarship revolves around the built environment, urban planning, historic preservation, and spatial equity.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 40 places preserving Black history.

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