Alumni Life

Putting Buffalo on the Map

Tom Dee has big plans for his hometown waterfront

Tom Dee at Canalside, the heart of Buffalo’s waterfront revitalization plan. Photo: Douglas Levere

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Buffalo deserves this. Buffalonians deserve it.”
Thomas P. Dee (EMBA ’96, BA ’75)

“We’re still in our infancy,” says Thomas P. Dee (EMBA ’96, BA ’75), rapidly sketching his thoughts on paper. When talking about Buffalo’s sparkling new waterfront, he often loses himself in excitement, his pen barely keeping up with his words.

A South Buffalo kid from a blue-collar family, Dee watched his beloved city struggle for decades. Recently, however, he has also witnessed its rapid turnaround, noting the influx of younger residents and new businesses to the downtown core.

Dee is president of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), the state-run agency managing the rehabilitation of Buffalo’s waterfront and, at its center, the popular Canalside district at the mouth of the Buffalo River.

“Buffalo deserves this. Buffalonians deserve it,” Dee says of the re-envisioned Erie Canal Harbor, whose turn-of-the-century nickname as the western terminus of the Erie Canal was America’s “Gateway to the West.”

The first in his family to attend college, Dee worked in construction before heading to community college to further his prospects. Eventually he transferred to UB to study business.

After graduating, he landed a job as a project manager at CannonDesign, a Buffalo-based global architecture firm that took him across the country on several high-profile building projects. In 2009, he was tapped to lead the ECHDC, which was beginning to tackle the mammoth job of transforming a former industrial wasteland into what he calls “a world-class tourist destination.”

With a small staff, Dee juggles the agency’s day-to-day operations, including overseeing all design, engineering and construction plans for what has become one of Buffalo’s largest urban redevelopment undertakings to date. The projects—which must follow the ECHDC’s guiding principles to provide public access and activities, four-season friendliness and partnerships with private development—include historically correct canals that extend the waterway into the heart of the larger $249 million Canalside entertainment district project.

The going hasn’t always been easy, he admits, but building such large-scale infrastructure for the future is incredibly fulfilling. “This is my legacy,” he says proudly.

At Canalside, progress can already be seen and experienced. Nearly 15,000 people attended music concerts there last year, and another 60,000 have gone ice skating on the new canals. This summer, a bike ferry began shuttling cyclists between the Inner and Outer Harbor, and thousands more tourists have visited to walk the pedestrian bridges and kayak amid the looming granaries of Silo City.

Dee’s agency is also involved in redeveloping the Outer Harbor, just south of Canalside. He is particularly fond of the new Ohio Street Corridor—what he calls “the yellow brick road” running along the Buffalo River. Once a forgotten access road, the repaved street now connects the public to a new Buffalo Harbor State Park—the city’s first state park—and the rest of the Outer Harbor, some of which has already been renewed with bike paths, beaches and historic signposts celebrating the Erie Canal’s shipping legacy.

Up next, the ECHDC will oversee the blueprint for additional mixed-use development along the Outer Harbor. In and around Canalside, projects include new entertainment offerings, residential villages and a major mixed-used public attraction (recent plans for a children’s museum complex are, Dee says, in progress).

What used to be only sketches of a prosperous future for Buffalo are now becoming reality, Dee adds. “People are already saying they’ve never seen anything like this in their lifetimes.”