Matt Urban Center head learning his new role through a COVID lens

Mar 15, 2021

The Matt Urban Center in Buffalo's Broadway-Fillmore community has a new boss. New Executive Director Ben Hilligas is grappling with so many activities that aren't active due to COVID-19. He is hoping vaccinations will start opening things up.

Hilligas joined the center Jan. 4 from the Erie County Department of Social Services, where he served for the past six years as Senior Youth Bureau Director in the Division of Youth Services. Prior to that, he worked for Say Yes Buffalo and Compass House youth shelter in a variety of capacities.

Ben Hilligas became executive director of the Matt Urban Center Jan. 4.
Credit Matt Urban Center

Hilligas succeeded long-time Executive Director Marlies Wesolowski, at the helm of a social services agency since 2001  who helped expand operations much wider than most similar agencies across the city, from building renovations to providing affordable housing to afterschool programs to the internal operations like managing building services in those housing complexes. There ares also the increasing problems of homelessness and food uncertainty in the East Side community.

Hilligas said it will be a learning curve.

"There's so much of what this agency does that I haven't been able to see yet, because we haven't been able to do it," he said. "Our dining room down the street at the Hope Center on Paderewski Street, they've been doing grab-and-go take-out meals for so many, many, many months. But we think we will be able to open that in a limited capacity fairly soon."

Hilligas said Matt Urban buildings seem empty because COVID has blocked so many activities. He cited the Crossroads project on Doat Street.

Longtime Matt Urban Center Executive Director Marlies Wesolowski (r) receives an award from Supportive Housing Network of New York Executive Director Laura Mascuch on behalf of the Hope Center being named Residence of the Year.
Credit Supportive Housing Network of New York

"There's a couple of different types of projects that we have. In some cases, we are the owner of the building and the programmer -- so like the service provider, as well as the owner. In some cases, we are the owner of the building and we contract with another non-profit organization to be the service component. In some other configurations, there is a developer who is the owner and then we are the provider who does those services. That's what we are doing for this Crossroads project," Hilligas said.

While a major current community development activity is converting that old industrial building on Doat Street to housing remains the biggest single project underway now, he said the agency is looking at renovating and renting much smaller one- and two-unit buildings for affordable housing. Crossroads is a total of 73 units, with 21 of them assigned as supportive housing for those moving from being homeless to trying to establish a stable residence.

Fillmore Councilmember Mitch Nowakowski said needs are re-starting and increasing.

"COVID is bringing new problems to the surfaces, but also having those chronic ones persist, like making sure that homes are weatherized, making sure that we have youth services contained in the those after-school programs running because they are so critical," Nowakowski said. "As people go back to work, we need to have those programs up and running because workers need to be able to have their children go somewhere safe."