Newell Nussbaumer '86
Rising on Positive Vibes
by Adele Jackson-Gibson '09
Buffalo winters are long and dark and enough to break anyone’s spirit. Many people do not see hope and wonder why we were ever called the Queen City.
But Newell Nussbaumer ’86 wears the rose-colored glasses that turn his vibrant visions of Buffalo into reality. One Saturday night in the dark of February, you could find Newell wearing Hawaiian shorts and a warm smile. He sipped beer at RiverWorks for Buffalo’s first Madd Tiki Winter Luau Festival. For months, Newell’s team worked to break up the Buffalo blues with festival fun. The once cold concrete floor was lit by fire dancers, hula hoops, live music, ice sculptures, paintings and summer spirits. He stood on a stage watching the local Capoeira group ebb and flow to Afro-Brazilian drums. The audience shook hips and swayed torsos in their grass skirts from Party City. As the event wrapped up, a rosy man hugged Newell, thanked him and posed for his wife to take their picture. “Thank you so much man, thank you so much.”
In that hug, you could tell Newell felt relieved at successfully pulling off a risky venture. “We didn’t have any commitments for funding when we launched it,” he said. “We just hoped our excitement and enthusiasm would attract the necessary funding to start.”
And with that moxie Newell made it work. Through his sheer excitement and unbreakable optimism, Newell could reenergize anyone’s Buffalove. Talk to him and he will paint you a colorful picture of the West Side brimming with cultural diversity, tell you all about the unique local restaurants, go on about Millennials, sustainable movements and chicken coops. The Elmwood Village Native likes to give tours of Buffalo: “Back in the day, giving tours was kind of a hit or miss,” he said. “But these days it’s ‘Where do I even start?’ I love the fact that I know so much about Buffalo and I’ve seen it turn the corner. I could look at just about any corner in Buffalo and tell you the history over the last 14 years.”
As for his occupation, it’s hard to pin Newell down. He calls himself “an instigator, a connector.” He’s the founder of the online publication Buffalo Rising, a once print, now online publication that heralds Buffalo’s exciting developments. He also the co-founder of the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts, the creator of the Powder Keg Festival that built the world’s largest ice maze, the creator of the Halloween Witches’ Ball, the co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer … and the list goes on.
However growing up, Newell felt like he had to leave his hometown. When he graduated from Nichols in 1986, he followed the exodus of high school graduates that planned on never turning back. He attended Skidmore College where he studied English, and soon after graduation, he launched off to the West Coast. “The goal was to end up in California and get a job and then stay there for a while. It’s not that I didn’t love Buffalo, it’s just that nobody stayed in Buffalo. It wasn’t even a consideration.” He traveled, worked, played ultimate frisbee for a while until he ran out of money. He had no choice but to return but he did so with a new venture in mind.
Elmwood Avenue in the 90’s was a rough neighborhood. There were no cafés or chic sushi bars or flourishing boutiques. The street was dotted with store front vacancies, striped with graffiti and if you lurked into the wrong corners you might’ve bumped into a nightwalker. Newell recounted his boyhood and the time he ran home to his mother with bloodstained leaves he had found after a recent shooting around the corner of his house. The lack of security and sense of community left the remaining business owners grumbling over light purses while trying to keep their shops afloat, but Newell came in with hope and a dream to open a boutique. Since rent was lower than $700 a month, Newell thought it was time to take a chance.
“I thought, ‘Maybe Buffalo is so far bottomed out there are opportunities here,’” he said. “But all the business owners told me, ‘Do not invest in Buffalo. It’ll be the worst mistake you will ever make in your entire life.’ All they did was complain about everything that was wrong with the street. But nobody was talking about solutions at all.”
In 1993, he opened up an eclectic retail store called Thunder Bay which was a huge success during its first few months of business. “I bought a couple of bracelets, a couple rugs and opened the store right before the holiday season,” he said. “I sold everything I had.” The store saw a successful run for the next 13 years. In 1994, he ran with that momentum and helped to establish the Elmwood Village Association with Mike Attardo of Get Dressed and other enthusiastic neighbors who saw potential in the neighborhood becoming a hub for local businesses. The Association began to clean the streets, scrub away the graffiti and chase the nigh walkers. And what started as just a band of Newell’s friends playing music over good food on the weekend slowly morphed into the Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts.
Newell started to get excited: “We can do these types of things left and right!” he said. “We can start festivals; we can clean up neighborhoods; we can really take back our city. And the more we started doing it, the more people would pay attention, the more people would open up businesses. There’s just so many opportunities here. You don’t have to make a fortune to live a really quality life and start something.” That energy is part of what turned Elmwood Avenue into the hip destination that it is today. With the Elmwood Village Association’s emphasis on creating a mixed-use community, people seized the opportunity to start coffee shops, clothing stores, and restaurants to create a bustling, family oriented neighborhood. In addition, the association recognized Buffalo’s impressive buildings and worked to preserve the historical structures that made the city great. Now the commercial vacancy rate is less than 2% with 215 businesses that bring the street to life.
However, as the Elmwood Village movement developed, Newell knew that this surge of hope needed a voice. “People were leaving Buffalo without knowing that some of us were giving Buffalo a chance. You needed someone to play the horn—beat the drum for these exciting initiatives.” In 2003, Newell gathered a team of eager grassroots activists to form the print magazine Buffalo Rising. Their goal was to combat the doom and gloom clouding the daily papers and highlight the great developments happening in the area. “I’m excited by the fact that you can effect change,” Newell said. “When there is something that you have an issue with—this is what I tell my writers all of the time—I say ‘You got to write about positive things, but if you want to write about a negative thing don’t write about it unless you have the solution. Without the solution you are just dragging everyone else through the mud.”
Now an online publication, Buffalo Rising reaches loyal readers worldwide. Since Buffalo is on the national radar as one of the Rustbelt phoenixes, readers from all over are interested in the new developments in Buffalo. Last year, Buffalo Rising reached 1.1 million unique visitors, averaging 90,000 visits per month. This does not count the many loyal followers that check in regularly.
Yet despite the modern Renaissance, there are still many doubters in Buffalo who think there are no opportunities here. Newell thinks that this is a matter of perspective. Business owners and entrepreneurs must see the city with fresh eyes. “Creativity is #1,” he said. ‘I see all the people that are thriving these days and it’s all the people that are doing things that no one else has really done. You can’t just open up the same restaurant that’s been open up a million times because Buffalonians are on to you. You can’t open up an Italian restaurant but if you open up a Korean BBQ, chances are you’ll make a goldmine here. You have to carve your own road.”
To recent graduates he says: “If you stay in Buffalo: awesome. There are so many opportunities here. But if you do go away, hopefully you come back someday, whether it’s a visit or whether it’s to move back here. Hopefully you have a love for Buffalo somewhere in your heart. If you come back, bring something with you that you think Buffalo needs.”
From Summer Magazine Issue 2015