Politics, Privilege, Race and Tim Hortons

Eleven years ago Ahmed Saleh opened the 24- hour Mandella Convenience Market and Citgo Gas on the corner of East Ferry and Jefferson Avenue, transforming a symbol of stagnation and neglect for 37 years, into a thriving, brightly lit sign of hope and progress. He recently completed his second Mandella enterprise at Jefferson and Broadway, a desolate inner city corner which stood empty even longer – over 40 years!

Mr. Saleh, a bright young businessman armed with a college degree, a strong work ethic, vision and love for his people, took his talents and dared to venture into the heart of East Buffalo to bring the same quality and service citizens experience in other parts of the city and suburbs. Yet despite single handedly helping to change the economic landscape in the traditionally underserved Black community, one piece of Mr. Saleh’s dream – to bring a full service Tim Hortons into the inner city – has yet to be realized.

Politics, Privilege and Race Initially his main competition – a planned mixed-use building by Ellicott Development with a Tim Hortons drive through at Michigan and William – was scrapped after the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted to deny Ellicott’s request to change the zoning law to accommodate the drive through construction. At that time the board also heard from area residents such as the Coppertown block club and other concerned citizens who expressed their opposition to the planned construction and praised the Board’s decision to deny it. That area of Michigan, they argued, is promoted as a walkable tourist attraction of the historic Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.

But on November 20 at a closed meeting, the Board met again and the denial for the drive through was overturned, reportedly as the result of a court order, declaring that construction could indeed go forward – no matter the law or codes or who and what the community wanted.

The question now is how the reversal of that decision stands to impact the Mandella Enterprise. Will politics and money prevail? If Ellicott Development is allowed to build its drive thru and gain the Tim Hortons’ franchise, will Mr. Saleh’s dream be denied?

As Mr. Saleh points out, Tim Horton’s can still open a franchise in his Broadway/ Jefferson establishment in the inner city. Tim Horton restaurants in close proximity to one another is nothing new. Some locations are not even a mile apart like the two at Clinton and Bailey and Clinton and William. “They can’t use distance as an excuse,” he said.

-Four Year Quest- Mr. Saleh’s quest to bring a Tim Horton’s into the inner city began at least four years ago when asked the Canadian based company to come into the Ferry/Jefferson location. Although they turned down his initial request – their concerns he said were location and what they saw as a “high crime area” – talks continued.

Mr. Saleh thought surely his then planned new location on Broadway would be acceptable. He built the facility to Tim Hortons’ specifications – enlisting the expert services of Schenn & Associates, the company that did all the engineering for the Tim Horton’s in East Aurora. Compared to other Tim Hortons around the city said John Schenn , Mande la’s would be able to offer very good service considering the size of the drive thru and the number of cars it can accommodate.

“I gave them (Tim Hortons) everything they wanted,” said Mr. Saleh, with the expectation they would come in…it was just an empty lot….we built for them.”

The new 6,000 square foot building includes a 25-car drive through with an entrance on Broadway and exit on Jefferson Avenue as well as all the other specifications he was told he needed to win approval.

But the back and forth continued. Why the delay? Why not a Tim Hortons at Mandela’s? Does race play a role? “Despite my track record it has not been easy,” Mr. Saleh continued. “I still have a hard time. Imagine someone who looks like me who has no track record. He has no chance. He can’t even dream!”

“Why can’t we have the same opportunities,” he continued alluding to racial disparities so prevalent in society today. “We work hard,we raise our families, pay our taxes… and we drink Tim Hortons… what is happening is not good for the East Side community that is looking to share in Buffalo’s renaissance.”

-Community Builder- A respected community builder and supporter, Mr. Saleh has received unwavering support from Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples- Stokes throughout his quest. Council President Darius G. Pridgen has also sent a support letter to Tim Hortons corporate offices on his behalf. Most recently a number of area ministers and community activists and residents have expressed support for Mr. Saleh in his attempt to land the Tim Hortons’ franchise.

In addition to an impressive and proven track record as a businessman, he holds a degree from Buffalo State College in Computer Science and completed a business /training course of study at Canisius College. Mr. Saleh works 18- 19 hours a day and is the recipient of over 25 community awards. He hosts such activities as his annual community NelsonMandela Day free birthday celebration and gas sale which draws hundreds yearly. He sponsors over 50 children in a youth bowling league in addition to supporting a host of other community ventures.

He opened the first location on Jefferson and Ferry in 2007 with an $800,000 loan from First Niagara Bank. He has only two years remaining to pay off that debt. When he decided to open his second location on Broadway, M&T bank invested $2.5 million into his business. “If M&T will invest $2.5 million in us, why can’t Tim Hortons come in as a franchise?” he asked.

“A Tim Hortons in the community would not only be great for business, it would be great for the neighborhood and great for diversity,” continued Mr. Saleh. Beyond that, he adds, the presence of a mainstream franchise is a solid investment in the community and helps remove the unfair stigma of a “crime ridden area,” hopefully encouraging other businesses to follow.

-Keeping Hope alive – Shortly after the Thanksgiving holiday, Mr. Saleh received a text from his broker, who shared a message he received from a Tim Hortons’ representative which read, “Still reviewing location…” in reference to the Mandella store on Broadway.

Mr. Saleh remains hopeful while keeping several options open. ‘’I’m still looking forward to Tim Hortons coming into the community,” he said. “It would be historic.”

While the new location will be open for business in a few weeks, the grand opening and ribbon cutting for the Broadway-Jefferson location – the first new minority-owned business built from the ground up in many years – will take place in the Spring.

The businesses were named in honor of iconic South African Freedom Fighter Nelson Mandela who dedicated his life to improving conditions for his people.

“I believe that if we push more businesses in the area, it will automatically upgrade and improve the neighborhood,” said Mr. Saleh. “This community deserves a chance…all we want is an opportunity like everyone else.”

-a.b.