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IDA TIGHTENS ELIGIBILITY FOR TAX BREAKS

The Erie County Industrial Development Agency on Monday approved a new policy that puts more limits on the type of projects that qualify for tax breaks and requires the agency to sign off on any deal that involves a company moving from Buffalo to the suburbs.

"To some degree, we are narrowing the eligibility of projects," said Andrew J. Rudnick, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership president who led a task force with representatives from five other local IDAs that revised the three-year-old countywide development policy.

The new policy centers around a more detailed list of the types of businesses that qualify for IDA incentives, based on a more precise breakdown of eligible industry categories culled from U.S. Census Bureau industry codes.

It also limits aid for new hotel projects to construction related to a new convention center or a "major tourist destination" within the county, as well as conference centers with their own food service facilities built in connection with a new hotel. The current policy on hotels restricts financial aid to the capital costs associated with renovating existing properties.

The IDA loosened the new policy from an original proposal that would have restricted the hotel aid to projects linked with a convention center in downtown Buffalo or destination attraction in Buffalo.

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak objected to the city-focused proposal, arguing that it would not permit aid for a hotel project associated with a major destination project in the suburbs.

"I don't think that is fair and equitable to the region," Gabryszak said before the board agreed to amend the policy to make the hotel provisions effective for the entire county.

Locations such as Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, the University at Buffalo, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport or the HSBC Arena would not be considered "destination attractions" that would allow nearby hotel projects to receive IDA incentives, Rudnick said.

Gabryszak, who failed in his effort to have the IDA delay voting on the new policy until next month to give board members more time to study it, was the only board member to vote against the new guidelines.

The new policy makes commercial medical facilities generally ineligible for IDA aid unless they provide back office support services that are regional in nature and have a significant part of their operations supporting activities outside Erie County. An exception also would be made to permit incentives for projects that use "cutting edge technology" or provide medical services that aren't generally available in the region.

Retail projects also are not eligible for IDA aid unless they meet certain standards, such as being located in an area that has been designated by the state as being highly distressed or are a "destination retail project" that would be a lure for tourists and shoppers from outside Erie County. Projects that are considered to improve the region's quality of life, such as a golf course comparable to the Legends on the Niagara course in Niagara Falls, Ont., also could be eligible for incentives, Rudnick said.

Businesses that provide professional services also would not be eligible for aid, except for back office operations that serve a regional clientele and get a significant portion of their business from outside Erie County.

The policy also allows more liberal incentive guidelines for retail and medical facilities within "neighborhood redevelopment areas" designated within each community. Those areas would be characterized by declining property values, high vacancy rates, a lack of investment and general signs of distress and blight.

A task force with representatives from all of the county's IDAs will review the designated areas. "They've been all over the map in terms of size and exactly what 'distressed' is," Rudnick said.

In an effort to ease concerns about businesses leaving Buffalo for incentive-backed projects in the suburbs, the new policy also mandates that any project receiving IDA aid and involves a company moving from the city to the suburbs must be approved by the Erie County IDA, which includes Mayor Anthony Masiello and County Executive Joel Giambra.

The Hamburg IDA already has approved the new policy, although it will be asked to support an amendment to reflect the countywide scope of the hotel guidelines. Other IDAs in Lancaster, Clarence, Concord and Amherst will consider the new policy later this month.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com