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Three business communities within the Town of Amherst appear to qualify for help and advice under an economic development program sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the head of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency told the agency's board Friday.

Of the seven "enhancement" areas designated by Amherst in 1997, the Snyder, Williamsville and Harlem-Kensington areas match the guidelines set under the Trust's Main Street program, said IDA executive director James Allen during the board's meeting. That means those areas already have an identity, not that they have a collection of historic buildings.

Participation in the program doesn't mean the Trust provides an influx of new money for development. Rather, the Main Street program and the National Main Street Center in Washington would provide guidance and a template for organizing business activity and revitalizing those areas into distinct communities to draw visitors and shoppers, Allen said.

"It makes it easier for us to do what we want to do following a template, rather than starting from scratch," Allen said in an interview.

Allen said Town of Hamburg officials also expressed interest.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Trust is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1949 and focused on saving historic buildings and neighborhoods. But the Main Street program, despite its link to the Trust, is focused more on economic development.

Launched in 1980, the National Main Street Center works with communities to strengthen their historic or traditional commercial areas, "making downtown a fun place to visit," according to the group's Web site. Today, 1,600 communities are using the program, with $17 billion in public and private funds invested in physical improvements. They've generated 57,470 net new businesses and 231,682 net new jobs.

The program works with small business owners and other parties in those areas to show them how to help themselves. It focuses on urban design, including physical improvements such as street lights or sidewalks; organizing businesses and other interested people; promotion of an area as a distinct entity; and economic development.

A representative of the national program toured Amherst Oct. 26-27. Teresa Lynch, senior program associate with the National Main Street Center, said Amherst would have to create and fund a town-wide Main Street program to support the three communities since there is no statewide program.

"They've done an awful lot of planning there," she said. "Ordinarily industrial development agencies are not engaged in the revitalization of historic commercial districts. But it appears the IDA there is very sympathetic to that and willing to use its resources to make these districts work better for the neighborhood."

Jamestown, Rome and Oyster Bay are the only other communities in the state following the program, although others have expressed interest, Lynch said.

Thirty-nine states currently have statewide, usually government-funded offices to support local programs and assist communities in using the Main Street strategies. Seven other states have had them at different times. New York is one of four -- along with Idaho, South Dakota and Montana -- that never did.

However, New York in June launched its own $20 million "Main Street Program" to stimulate downtown renewal by providing matching grants for building renovations, streetscape enhancements and downtown business or cultural anchors. The program, administered by the Division of Housing and Community Renewal, also links resources between various state agencies to give technical assistance to communities. Applications have gone out, and the state is now reviewing proposals.

A spokesman for the governor said the state has long focused on strengthening Main Street business communities. "We are proud of our record of support for local projects across New York State that are revitalizing our Main Streets, creating jobs, improving housing and enhancing public services," said Todd Alhart.

During the 22-minute meeting Friday morning, the four members of the seven-member IDA board who attended also approved a $2.62 million lease for North Forest Properties #1, LLC. North Forest wants to build three multi-tenant office buildings at University Commons Office Park to act as "incubators" for start-up or small businesses. The total office space would be 43,732 square feet.

By working with the agency, North Forest Properties will receive tax breaks, allowing it to charge lower rental rates to the small businesses. In turn, the businesses would have lower operating costs and a chance to focus on growth and profitability until they're able to go out on their own. The project, located across Sweet Home from Rensch Road, is expected to retain or create 195 jobs.

North Forest would pay a total of $415,182 in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) over 10 years to the Town of Amherst, Erie County and the Sweet Home Central School District, compared to the $77,576 in taxes to the three entities now generated by the vacant land. But the firm would save $486,008 in sales tax, property tax and mortgage recording taxes over the same time period.


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