West Seneca megaproject raises issues of financing - The Buffalo News

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West Seneca megaproject raises issues of financing

West Seneca officials say they now hope to decide by summer’s end whether to proceed with a $700 million megaproject proposed for the former Seneca Mall by developer Scott R. Congel.

But a host of questions remains unanswered, even apart from a companion proposal involving a new Buffalo Bills stadium adjacent to the site – all part of what sources describe as preliminary conversations between Congel and billionaire B. Thomas Golisano to buy the team.

The questions include:

• Can West Seneca afford what might be the most ambitious private development in Western New York history?

• Can the town and Congel’s S&R Properties compromise on the developer’s proposal for a 30-year tax break known as a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, that officials say is now unacceptable?

• Is a new feasibility study needed after a $30,000 effort paid for by taxpayers was rendered moot by major changes proposed by the developer?

• Will the reported interest of Congel and former Sabres owner Golisano in buying the Bills and building a stadium in West Seneca change the discussions?

West Seneca Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan says the town remains excited by Congel’s proposal for a massive development featuring hotels, housing, sports facilities, a theater and parking. But she said intense negotiations over the next few weeks will determine just how – or if – the town and Congel can proceed toward transforming a 30-year blight on the West Seneca landscape.

“It’s over-the-top exciting,” she said, adding that the town is “thrilled” about a project with far-reaching effects on West Seneca and surrounding communities.

But she also said that the town views the idea cautiously, that a referendum may be required to approve bonding for the town’s obligations, that infrastructure may be overwhelmed and that the project’s immensity presents many unanswered questions.

“Our responsibility is to make sure we don’t extend ourselves to the point of no return,” she said.

Councilman Eugene P. Hart calls the Congel proposal a potential “game-changer” for West Seneca but is not yet convinced.

“I’m at the point where they have to make a better offer for the town to get involved,” he said. “He’s asking an awful lot of a little town.”

Last month, Congel revealed a complicated proposal for the 55-acre site that could later be expanded to include a covered stadium – which sources say may or may not feature a retractable roof – with seating capacity in the high 60,000s.

A Syracuse native and current Denver resident, Congel is part of the family that has developed major malls such as the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga and Destiny USA in Syracuse. He estimated that the development he dubs “Seneca Place” would generate 7,000 construction jobs and more than 2,000 permanent jobs. He notes it has “evolved” from an even more ambitious idea that included a 40-story tower and bigger community center.

After owning the property for more than two decades – and passing up other opportunities for development there – Congel said he and his S&R Group feel more enthusiastic than ever about its potential. He pointed to geographic advantages created by the confluence of the Thruway, the Niagara Thruway and Routes 400 and 219 in the immediate vicinity, as well as the surge of construction activity throughout the region, as reasons to feel bullish about the project.

Congel believes that continued negotiations with the town will prove fruitful.

“I think we’re getting closer to answering questions on both sides, and we continue to be encouraged and enthused about the process,” he said. “The answers will be there in the next couple of months for the town to move forward and make a decision.”

But a major impediment faces Congel’s request for a 30-year tax break.

“That’s never going to happen,” Meegan said.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get a 30-year PILOT on a mixed-use, residential type of thing,” Hart added. “There is very little chance of that.”

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz also has all but discounted tax breaks requested from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency because of their length and the nature of the project.

Congel recognizes the town’s concerns over the requested tax break, saying only that “a lot of healthy dialogue” continues. He said his company also is committed to substantially reducing the town’s bonding obligations for the project. “It’s in negotiation,” said G. Steven Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman who is Congel’s lobbyist with the town. “We’re working to try to get this to happen.”

Meegan also said the town is not involved in any discussions about a possible stadium for the Bills, noting that Congel’s plans call for additional land acquisitions adjacent to the mall property should he pursue that idea.

Town officials have yet to release the results of a $30,000 study that the town commissioned from a private firm to determine whether West Seneca could handle such a major project. But the study concentrated on a far more complex proposal, and officials say a new study of a downsized plan is now needed.

How to pay for another study is under discussion, Congel says.

“We will do whatever both sides feel is necessary to move the project forward,” he said.

Even more concern centers on the proposal for a community center featuring sports and parking facilities. Hart said the town is looking at $8.5 million in annual debt service to fund that part of the deal with no assurance that costs would be covered by community center revenues. Town obligations on the project could amount to 70 percent of its bonding capacity, he said.

“We definitely would have to do another study to see whether the numbers they project are valid,” Hart said. “I think it would be very difficult to do.”

Sources report that town officials remain concerned about Congel’s inability to follow through on promises for a similarly ambitious mall redevelopment in the Rochester suburb of Irondequoit.

Meegan said she expects to discuss the proposal with fellow council members in executive session during their meeting next Monday and possibly at the one after that.

She also said the town hopes to find a way to fund a project that West Seneca can afford.

“I believe there is an opportunity in that area,” she said of the project. “We aren’t confident about that size but are convinced we can meet somewhere in the middle.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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