by Dave Warner
If you spend just five minutes with Little Falls native David Casullo, CEO of Rock City Development, LLC, you’ll understand the concept. In fact, he is so passionate about it, you will become one who believes it yourself.
The new owner of Stone Mill and Canal Side Inn, Casullo was born and raised in Little Falls as was his wife, Lori Shepardson. They were high school sweethearts. Casullo is the youngest of the youngest generation in his family and being that, he felt that it made him the most observant of the group.
“Growing up here, it was very interesting to me to just observe. My family, the people who were associated with my family that were dear friends or relatives. I noticed that there was always this sort of chemistry that permeated the entire extended family,” said Casullo.
He took it for granted when he was a kid, but when he got out into the real world, he realized that kind of bond was very unusual. That experience of watching the older generations lead the family influenced his ability to be a leader as well.
Casullo graduated from college and headed off to the business world – first stop Syracuse. He and Lori got married, they started having children and they moved back to Little Falls after selling the business he had in Syracuse.
Once back, he bought 180 acres of cornfields, which is now called Overlook Ridge. He developed the property and before long had sold 19 lots.
He then went back to school to get his MBA at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. When he finished that, he moved to Cincinnati to run a business division and in five years that division was so successful, that Casullo was promoted and moved back to Little Falls.
“I was starting to take a more mature interest in this area and having been away from it, I realized the special nature of this community,” said Casullo.
He moved on to Raymour & Flanigan, working for Neil Goldberg. “Neil turned out to be a significant mentor for me in my life,” stated Casullo. “I reported to Neil for 10 years – I was the head of human resources and along the way when we were about 350 million in sales, he came to me and said he wanted to penetrate metropolitan NY with our brand.”
Goldberg felt that they had not had a lot of success hiring outside talent to grow the business, so rather than fight the headwind, he had Casullo set up a leader development institute to create their own leaders.
“That was a significant point in time for me because what I had learned then was that a lot of the values and a lot of the ethics, diligence and differentiating aspects of leadership that really impacted me from growing up here, were the elements of behavior that were fundamental to our leader development institute,” Casullo said.
This became something that Casullo wanted to teach globally so that he could come back to Little Falls and build a leader development institute of his own on the property at Overlook Ridge.
“What happened was, given that vision, and given what I had learned was starting to happen in Little Falls…Main Street is coming back…the various organizations that were making things happen…Lori and I started talking and decided to come back for good in 2017,” stated Casullo.
A circle of people in Little Falls became excited about Casullo bringing a leader development institute to the city and his return here. They saw that business ideas like that could differentiate Little Falls in ways that would help the community grow.
Casullo felt that building up the leader development institute from scratch as the first project, would be cost prohibitive as venture one, so he started looking at other opportunities.
“I started thinking – what is the first iteration of this thing…what could work? I knew David and Richard here (Stone Mill) and I said hey guys, what are you going to do with this building? And they said, we’re going to sell it, do you want to buy it? And I said I think I do.”
Casullo was interested in the property because of the nine-room inn and a 6,500 square foot blank slate on the fourth floor, “so I’m thinking, first iteration of the leader development institute.”
He started to realize that there are iconic properties in town and that if he or someone like him did not get them, then they might go to out of town people who might do nothing with them, or who had no clear idea of what should be done with them. “They are certainly not as concerned about the area as we are,” Casullo said.
“Canal Side has been a big part of our life. So, some of my friends in this circle came to me and said what are you thinking, and when I told them, they said they wanted to participate and help,” stated Casullo.
Out of those conversations, a small investment group was created called Rock City Development, LLC. “We really started to realize that if we put together a holding company, we could create an entity that creates an efficiency that allows us to operate a variety of different entities at a lower cost,” Casullo continued.
One of the examples is the chef that will be helping figure out the coffee house at Stone Mill and who is also going to be the executive chef at the refurbished Canal Side Inn. One person helping to guide the two establishments.
Casullo stated “Real Estate is great, but it’s just a piece of land. What makes it really great is the people who do something with it or operate it. The whole idea of the holding company is for me to exercise my leadership knowledge to create a team that creates energy and that we lay that energy over any entity that we choose to buy and operate.”
“Those entities are then integrated into a system that helps the municipality grow in terms of its economic and cultural ability. It does it in a way that establishes us as a credible development company,” he said.
There are a lot of towns across Upstate NY “and if we can show how Little Falls came to be revitalized and continues to grow and prosper, it becomes a model that we can reproduce or teach, whatever we want to do,” Casullo stated.
He summed it up as follows: “It’s simple, we want to keep the people that care about Little Falls and do something about Little Falls here, and we want to attract more back. It’s basically that simple. We want to also put Little Falls on the map. It’s been a very big secret to a very small group of people that this place is special and that people who know about it have a sense about why it’s special, but we want to complete the narrative.”
Casullo says that his purpose statement is “I want to demonstrably impact Upstate NY economically, culturally and in every positive way by the year 2021.”
According to him, the key word in the sentence is demonstrably. “…where people are not only feeling like things are happening, but seeing them happening and it’s being demonstrated in ways that we can articulate. Look how many people are being attracted to the area, how many jobs are being created, things like that,” stated Casullo. “Creating an atmosphere of energy is what is the attracting element.”
“All of us have a deep desire to see Little Falls succeed. Hopefully over time, as people come into the Stone Mill, they’ll say there’s real energy there. There are some really cool things happening there,” said Casullo.
“We’ve also got aspirations for some co-working space, where people who tend to work remotely can rent a very small space. We would outfit it for them and then they would have a common area that is very cool. It has a social aspect to it, but all the mechanicals like printers and then a common conference room that they could lease, rent, or sign out for an hour, however, it is.”
According to Casullo, they have this in Syracuse and it’s called Common Space. “The economics start to make sense here,” he said.
The intent is that some of these things will attract other businesses, who want to have similar or complementary businesses to the things that Rock City Development is working on.
The bottom line for Casullo? “You need capital to do things and public money tends to have strings attached. It gives a false sense of business success. Business success is really about creating a service or a product that is needed and that people are willing to pay for, so that you can operate profitably. Capital from the private sector will flow to people who those investors believe are business people and will have demonstrable credible success having done so successfully in the past.”
Casullo thinks that if they do this correctly and that they show the energy and value that is being created here, “then the money will flow. When money flows, a lot of things can happen,” Casullo stated.
If you would like to listen to a presentation by Casullo and ask questions about what Rock City Development is working on, he’ll be speaking at the local Rotary Club meeting, February 6, 2019, at 6:15 at the Elks Lodge.