It’s hard to pick up a newspaper or magazine today without seeing an article about how U.S. Rust Belt cities are making a comeback. In Buffalo, Park School graduate Ben Obletz has been a central player in the rebirth of downtown.
Obletz is President of First Amherst Development Group, a commercial real estate company that is headquartered on Main Street in Snyder, a short walk from Park’s campus. The company was founded by his grandfather, the late Bernie Obletz, back in 1958. For many years, the company was oriented toward suburban development. However, a downtown venture in the early 2000s took the company in a new direction.
“About 10 years ago, we went down to the city of Buffalo when very few people would consider the city a nice place to live or a fun place to live,” Obletz said. “We did this project, the Lofts at Elk Terminal,” on Scott Street near Michigan Avenue, two blocks away from First Niagara Center.
“It was the first adaptive re-use housing project, probably the first loft project that had ever been done in Buffalo,” he said. “We converted an old truck terminal warehouse building into apartments. There are 72 of them down there today and they are full every month. It’s been a terrific success for us.”
In 2006, Obletz and his First Amherst project team completed the $6.5 million development of The Granite Works, a mixed-use development on Main Street downtown. That project won the company several preservation awards.
Obletz himself was honored as one of Buffalo Business First’s 40 Under Forty in 2011. He was also named Best Developer in WNY by Buffalo Spree in 2007 and was designated as Horizons Citizen of the Year in 2007 by the Boy Scouts of America. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. He co-chaired the Buffalo Building Reuse Commission, established by Mayor Byron W. Brown in 2010.
“I co-chaired it with Bob Shibley [Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo], and Christina Orsi, who is the Regional Director of Empire State Development. We spent a year studying what can we be doing to affect change and development and reuse over the great old building stock that Western New York has.” Obletz said Western New York is starting to see a lot of “stakeholder investment” downtown.
“People opening restaurants, people opening nightclubs, people opening apartment complexes. We have been really lucky to be part of that, the whole resurgence of downtown.”
After graduating from Park, Obletz studied Business Management at the University at Buffalo. He then worked for Realmark Properties for several years before joining the family business.
His family ties at Park School also run deep.
“My grandmother graduated [from Park] back in 1939. Then my father, in the class of ’66. Three of his siblings graduated from Park School. And then his wife -- my stepmother -- graduated from Park School and I also had three siblings who graduated from Park. So there is a long lineage of Parkies.”
Douglas Obletz, Ben’s uncle, is another Park graduate. He lives in Portland, OR, and in the 1990s he founded a development company out there affiliated with First Amherst.
Obletz started at Park in pre-kindergarten, when June Watt was teaching. He left for another school for several years, then finished 6th through 12th grades at Park. He remembers having “a lot of great teachers over those years.”
For three years, Ben helped run the school store in the old dining room in Lewis Hall. He also was involved in several theater productions, working mostly behind the scenes. And he remains involved to this day, serving on Park’s Facilities Committee.
“The backstage of the theater was a great learning experience for me. Dealing with contractors and dealing with a number of people and solving problems, I really learned a lot.
“I certainly took a lot of classes, business classes, and history classes and so forth, but I think in retrospect, 17 years later, the learning experiences that I had both inside and especially outside the classroom were very beneficial to me in life every day.
“Park afforded me an education that was very much specific to how I learned best,” he said. “I was able to get involved with things at Park that were a great learning experience.”