The Amherst Industrial Development Agency may have to consider yanking the tax incentives it granted to Zaepfel Development Co. for a new building on Wehrle Drive if neither PHH Mortgage Services nor any other large tenant takes occupancy, the agency’s head confirmed this week.
Zaepfel is constructing a 97,000-square-foot office building at 1760 Wehrle Drive, originally designed to house upward of 800 employees for the mortgage division of PHH Corp., a financial services outsourcing firm based in Mount Laurel, N.J.
But the primary tenant envisioned for the $34 million project is no longer sure it needs or wants it because of its own internal restructuring and cost-cutting, which has already resulted in PHH cutting 135 jobs in Amherst this year. That could mean the building, which is already well underway, could be completely empty upon opening.
Amherst IDA Executive Director James J. Allen said the agency still does not have definite answers from either PHH or Zaepfel about what might happen with the 97,000-square-foot building when it’s completed. But he noted that there’s still plenty of time for the developer to comply with the terms of the tax incentives.
PHH technically has until the end of 2015 to meet its job commitments for the building, he said. Plus, Zaepfel could still receive property tax breaks as long as it gains another tenant that creates a lot of new jobs. A real estate source said the developer is already talking to some other potential tenants.
“We’re still waiting on PHH and a couple of other things to figure out what is going to happen,” he said. “There’s no need for us to take any action yet until we have a better understanding of what that action may be.”
It could mark the first time that the Amherst IDA – often criticized for easily approving tax breaks – has to cancel them before the project even opens. Allen said the agency has found in the past that it “makes more sense to let the incentives run with the building” to make it easier to market it for another lease instead of dealing with a vacant building.
“We have never revoked incentives whenever a firm has not met its obligations or when a firm has gone out of business during the term of abatement,” he said. “To revoke benefits because a tenant doesn’t move in or goes out of business makes it very difficult to fill the space and could result in a partially completed building or a building remaining vacant for several years. Keeping the benefits in place helps to market the building to other eligible firms.”
PHH, which took over the former HSBC Mortgage Corp. operations in Depew from HSBC Bank USA, had planned to relocate the 400 employees it inherited from the bank and create 400 additional new jobs.
The company obtained up to $3 million in state incentives from Empire State Development Corp. for job retention and creation, plus $1.3 million in sales tax savings from the Amherst IDA. It set up shop temporarily at 220 and 170 Northpointe Parkway in Amherst, also owned by Zaepfel.