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End culture of corporate handouts

It was like watching people scream into a hurricane. One by one, they sat at the boardroom table, leaned into the microphone and blasted the idea of taxpayers shelling out for a new building that will do downtown more harm than good.

Their words were lost to the wind, or at least to the ears they were trying to reach.

The breakfast-hour public hearing Monday amounted, sadly, to a noble exercise in futility. A handful of speakers slammed county development officials who are poised to fork over at least $3.2 million taxpayer dollars to help Uniland build an unneeded office/hotel structure, with requisite parking ramp, at Delaware Avenue and West Chippewa Street. Joined at the hip to the deal is prime tenant Delaware North, the homegrown concessions giant whose 350 workers will abandon the Key Center two blocks away. All for a net gain of 65 jobs.


The project adds more office space to a downtown buckling under the weight of vacancies, even before the lights go out at 38-story One Seneca Tower. It includes hotel space of questionable need, given downtown’s four ongoing hotel projects. It constructs a new parking structure while emptying Delaware North workers’ vehicles from the nearby Augspurger ramp. It punches a huge tenant hole in the Key Center.

Around here, we call that “growth.”

Someday, someway, it has to change. Shuffling pieces on a chessboard already abundant with blank spaces misuses taxpayer dollars, sabotages the free market and perpetuates a gravy train sorely in need of a roadblock.

People have noticed.

The deal, which seems headed for an Erie County Industrial Development Agency thumbs-up next month, will siphon millions of dollars “that would otherwise be used for police, public works, schools, fire and the like,” said Sarah Maurer of the Partnership for the Public Good, “to add to the profit margin of the developer and employer.”

Maurer and others spoke truth to the typhoonlike power of our corporate-handout culture. Not that it did much good. Delaware North executives – who already have secured $807,000 in sales tax relief – seemed surprised in recent weeks that folks made a fuss over the unneeded entitlements. It underlines how conditioned CEOs and developers have become to corporate welfare.

“In some ways, you can’t blame the business community, because these are the rules,” Assemblyman Sean Ryan acknowledged. “Which just shows how much we need to change the rules.”

Delaware North, which has a presence in other metropolises, upped the fear factor by noting its “other options.” The mere suggestion of a company calling Mayflower typically turns politicians’ spines to jelly. Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe, an ECIDA board member, told me he wasn’t afraid Delaware North would leave – and in the next sentence reeled off a list of homegrown firms (Trico, Greatbatch, etc.) that bolted over the years. “The tough question,” Tobe said, “is, what would happen if we didn’t do this?”

Sorry, but I can’t believe that a multibillion-dollar company would uproot 350 families – to a costlier metropolis, no less – because its development partner didn’t land a tax break. Ryan noted that Delaware North already has secured $3.5 million in state handouts.

“Now these companies go to the county well and dip again,” Ryan noted. “This whole thing shows that these development agencies are obsolete – flat-earthers.”

Times may be changing. The ECIDA finally has stopped giving handouts to retail – doughnut shops, pizza parlors, liquor stores. Public blowback last month to Uniland’s original proposal prompted it to downsize its “ask” to a more digestible level.

“This was going to be rubber-stamped – until people spoke out,” Ryan said.

“That response will make it harder for the next company to do a deal.”

Let’s hope so. The more deals like this that get done, the more subtraction-by-addition buildings that get built, the longer it will take downtown to stand on its own feet. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

People speaking truth to power should have the wind at their backs – not a handout hurricane in their faces.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com

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