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There's a renewed push to merge multiple development agencies

Talk about merging the region's industrial development agencies is heating up again.

But if it ever happens, it's likely to be more of a shotgun marriage because of the Amherst IDA's steadfast desire to remain independent.

Yet the issue just won't seem to go away, and it's likely to continue to generate debate this year as a five-member committee appointed in September by the Erie County IDA to study ways to streamline economic development services in Erie County continues its work.

Erie County IDA officials also are trying to use its own leadership void, caused by the abrupt departure of President, CEO and Executive Director Charles E. Webb in mid-December after three years running the agency, as a further springboard for a more regional approach.

That effort, thus far, has met with a cool reaction from Amherst IDA officials, who took pains to point out they were not included in the committee.

Yet the issue has gained some momentum in recent months, especially after t h e Amherst Town Board, long a bastion of support for an independent Amherst IDA, voted in August to ask the state Legislature to back a proposed merger between the two agencies.

A month later, the Erie County IDA, behind chairman Dennis M. Penman, a supporter of a single countywide IDA, formed the committee to study streamlined services.

"This is very timely," said County Executive Joel Giambra. "This is a step in the right direction."

Penman is trying to build a consensus for a more regional approach before the agency starts looking for a replacement to Webb, probably not until the late summer or fall.

"It will be inclusive of all the IDAs and the City of Buffalo," Penman said, referring to the county's six industrial development agencies, including those in Hamburg, Concord, Clarence and Lancaster. "What we're going to try to do is construct something that's depoliticized."

But James J. Allen, the Amherst IDA's executive director, opposes the notion of simply merging his agency into the Erie County IDA, although he sees merit in a more coordinated, regional approach to economic development.

Allen's vision would create a new entity that would bring all of the county's existing IDAs under a single umbrella group that would handle the region's major projects and initiatives, but it would leave the local IDAs in place to handle smallerscale neighborhood projects.

The renewed push for a merger comes three years after a bitter divorce ended a twoyear period during which the Amherst and Erie County IDAs shared leadership and operated under a common eligibility policy.

But the notion of an IDA merger isn't being greeted with open arms by some of the region's half-dozen development agencies, with the Hamburg IDA going on record as opposing a merger late last year.

Erie County IDA board member Lawrence Meckler, the executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, was named chairman of the committee. Its other members include Alfred Luhr, an M&T Bank senior vice president, and Fred Saia, the president of Lackawanna-based contractor Oneida Group, along with Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Ronald Moline and Buffalo Niagara Partnership President Andrew J. Rudnick.

The Erie County IDA also is expected to review its Regional Development Corp. lending programs for small and start-up businesses this year. The agency, which started in 1979 with $11 million in funding, has made more than $84 million in loans since then, building up a fund that now stands at more than $18 million, said David Kerchoff, the ECIDA's assistant treasurer.

ECIDA board member Lawrence Meckler, who also is executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said the Regional Development's focus should be more toward smaller companies where its funding can be the difference in bridging a funding gap, rather than larger initiatives involving many banks and investors.

The Amherst IDA, along with Buffalo, the Town of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga, also have been working with a consultant to develop ways to market vacant properties in those areas. A report issued last fall found that the region has 39,000 vacant properties, each of which cost communities an estimated $2,400 a year in lost tax revenue and additional service expenses. The total price tag for those properties: $93 million in services over a fiveyear period.