This isn’t just another hold-your-nose, no- options taxpayer gouge.
It is a potential line in the sand between the Old Buffalo, where any development was propped up by taxpayer dollars, and the New Buffalo, which is learning to stand on its own feet.
Uniland Development wants to build a new headquarters/hotel for prospective tenant Delaware North, one of Buffalo’s few corporate headquarters. The proposed $94 million, 12-story building, with inevitable parking ramp, is so close to the company’s current digs in the Key Center that EJ Manuel could hit it with a rock.
The Montante family-owned Uniland says it can’t build without taxpayer help from the ECIDA, the county’s developmental agency. Delaware North, whose holdings include concession giant Sportservice and the Boston Bruins, has an expiring lease and says it needs a new home. The Jacobs family-owned company, significantly, is making no overt threat to uproot 350 workers and leave town if the deal isn’t done. But fear is in the air and some public officials are – needlessly – running scared.
With all due respect, the proposal has the musty, old-school odor of a deal hatched in the Buffalo Club, nurtured in a corporate law office and presented as a veiled ultimatum to overly pliable public officials.
The proposal begs the question: Why do a pair of wildly profitable companies – Delaware North boasts annual revenue of more than $2 billion – need a handout from a hurting community for a project that merely re-shuffles the downtown deck, in a way that arguably does more harm than good?
Just saying no to this and similar future deals is not so much a matter of calling anyone’s bluff as it is coming to our collective senses.
The proposed building would create more empty office space, since Delaware North would fill barely half of the building, while undercutting the market for already-vacant downtown property. It would take a large bite out of Key Center in the wake of the emptying of the 38-story HSBC Tower. It would add yet another streetscape-obliterating parking ramp, while sucking vehicles out of the Augspurger Ramp two blocks away and moving DNC workers further from Metro Rail. It would add hotel rooms of questionable need to a downtown with four hotel projects in the works. All for a net gain of 65 jobs.
That isn’t development, it’s civic absurdity. And taxpayers should not have any part of it.
Since Uniland says it can’t build without taxpayer help, it puts the power in our hands. Or, by association, it is in the hands of the ECIDA board, on which county executive Mark Poloncarz has the most muscle. There should be a simple answer when the board votes in two weeks: No.
Although high-profile Delaware North has been the focus of the project, it is typically the developer – in this case, Uniland – that drives these deals. Delaware North is just the prospective tenant. It would be Uniland’s building and ramp.
Buffalo businessman Howard Zemsky, co-chairman of the governor’s Regional Development Council, said Uniland’s new-building proposal doesn’t fit the Council’s economic growth strategy.
“If the project isn’t justified by market forces of supply and demand,” said Zemsky, “then we should not invest public dollars to lower the cost.”
If Delaware North wants a taxpayer reward for growing jobs, it doesn’t need a new building – or a new parking ramp – to get it. It can expand in an upgradable center, or in a different building.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan was among those criticizing Uniland’s plan.
“We should only subsidize proposals that grow the economic pie, or involve adaptive reuse of existing buildings,” Ryan told me. “It’s a developer who is driving this deal, not the marketplace.”
This is just the latest roll-out of a tired old template: A developer secures a site, hooks a prime tenant, unveils a drawing of a shiny new building, then says taxpayers need to pony up if they want “progress.”
It’s time we stopped playing a losing game.
Poloncarz has in the past slammed – and voted against – projects that he said merely “shuffle pieces on the chessboard.” That’s precisely what this thing does. Poloncarz and the ECIDA board can send a message by swatting it aside.
If it really is a new Buffalo, we can’t keep doing the same bad old deals.