Malls today differ from their glory days of the ’80s and ’90s. Gone are the neon lights beckoning shoppers in, music stores filled with rows of cassettes and later CDs, and kids using up a month’s worth of allowance in quarters at the arcade. The modern mall is becoming less about being a place to shop and more about bringing a community together. This is exactly what Ryan Benz G’11 had in mind when his company, Redev CNY, and his partners put in their bid to redevelop ShoppingTown mall in DeWitt, New York.
“What I focus on first and foremost is the impact a project makes on the people,” says Benz, who earned a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises from Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. “From a civic perspective, this needs to add greater value to the quality of life of Central New York.” Culture is the reason why Benz first focused his efforts on opening several high-end apartment buildings and restaurants in the area, including Oh My Darling and its basement speakeasy The Fitz, which have been in operation for about three years. He and the development team are currently evaluating anchor stores for the new space, which they are calling District East, and envisioning what the overall atmosphere will look and feel like. “You're seeing greater interest in experiences,” Benz explains. “A traditional mall environment is not an experience. It's a place where you go shopping. Shopping is not the experience; the experience is how you feel when you're there.”
To that end, the site will include restaurants, apartments and condominiums, a movie theater, offices and medical suites, a grocery store, other entertainment attractions, and may connect to the local pedestrian and bike path along the Erie Canal. “Restaurants are cultural anchors. That's what brings the community together and that's what's important in terms of establishing cultures. A culture, which then leads to businesses, people wanting to come downtown and more jobs coming downtown.” By the time the project is finished, which will likely take several years, it will hardly resemble the mall that currently sits in the location.
I would not have been qualified nor would I have had the opportunity to take my first job in real estate right out of school without my degree from Syracuse University.—Ryan Benz G’11
Redeveloping and starting businesses may seem like a far cry from playing trumpet, which is what Benz studied as an undergraduate at Montclair State University in New Jersey, but the entrepreneurial spirit was always in his blood. His first job was as a paper boy when he was 12 years old and while he was studying music, he ran a driveway repair company and invented a music notebook that he sold to college bookstores and music stores. “I grew up with this mentality that said, what else are we doing? Let's go.”
Applying and Sharing Knowledge
Benz credits his education at the Whitman School with giving him the experience and knowledge he needed to start working in real estate. After graduation, he took a job as a leasing agent for Destiny USA with Pyramid Management Group. “I would not have been qualified nor would I have had the opportunity to take my first job in real estate right out of school without my degree from Syracuse University.”
It's such an honor to come back to Syracuse and help foster young entrepreneurs or real estate developers.—Ryan Benz G’11
Saying his degree made him more marketable to take that leap into real estate, it also gave him the confidence he needed. He and his wife, Leigh Ann, opened a chain of retail stores in New York and New Jersey called Lee Lee’s Forest before coming back to Central New York, where Benz grew up, to raise their son.
Now, as he works on District East, his restaurants and apartments, Benz also finds time to give back to his alma mater. He’s come back to share his experiences as an entrepreneur with the Entrepreneurship Club and the Real Estate Club, and to judge the Orange Tank Pitch Competition in which current students and alumni entrepreneurs from the Whitman School pitch their business ventures to judges and vie for a cash prize. “It's such an honor to come back to Syracuse and help foster young entrepreneurs or real estate developers. I think it's an obligation as an alumnus to support current students and one I absolutely love to participate in,” he says.
Benz has even had some undergraduate Whitman School students intern for his company, saying they’ve all been impressive and have gone on to do great things, including attending law school. He says being part of the “vibrant” alumni network gives him the chance to rise to a level of expectation that is set for the professional network. “Having those alumni connections, both professionally and casually, means the world to me,” he says. “It's important to maintain and grow the caliber of our students and ultimately maintain and grow the caliber of our school. I believe that through that growth, our students will have better opportunities in their futures and be in the best position to continue the culture of excellence. It’s a lot of fun, and rewarding, to have an impact on the next generation of leaders.”