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Employment in Amherst office and industrial parks could increase by more than 4,000 jobs over two years as 116 companies eye expansions, the Amherst Industrial Development Agency announced Friday.

But the survey of more than 400 tenants in the 16 commercial parks also found that many companies are having a tough time finding machinists, network administrators, programmers and other technicians.

Overall employment in the business parks increased by 3.6 percent in 1998, the smallest increase in four years, according to the survey. The 585 companies that lease space employ 25,692, an increase of 895 jobs over the previous year. The number of tenants actually dropped by 2 percent since 1997 as 110 companies moved to other locations, merged or went out of business.

However, 97 new companies with 1,486 employees moved into the office parks, more than offsetting the job losses.

More employees live in Amherst and Buffalo, with the number of workers commuting from other Erie County suburbs dropping by 15 percent over the past two years. Economic planners said this could be an indication that more people are moving closer to their job sites.

Nearly one out of every three workers in the commercial parks live in Amherst, an 8 percent increase since 1996. The number of Buffalo residents employed in the parks increased by 5 percent to 21 percent over the same period. The survey found that 19 percent of all workers live outside Erie County.

James J. Allen, the agency's executive director, said one of the most telling statistics is that employment in the 16 commercial parks has increased by nearly 107 percent since 1991 when there were 12,437 employees. He said during the same time period, overall job growth in the Buffalo region was under 2 percent.

"Our growth pattern is phenomenal in light of the fact that our region hasn't been growing. If we could only find a way to get the region to grow in the same way," Allen told board members.

About 38 percent of the responding companies said they are having difficulties filling technical positions, jobs that compromise nearly 40 percent of all employment in the business and industrial parks. Seventy-six companies forecast the need for 322 new technical employees within two years, with more than a third of the businesses expecting to encounter recruitment problems. The survey mirrors earlier studies that underscored the need for improved job-training initiatives.

"The machine tool industry in particular is having a very difficult time finding people. We really need to work on this in the future," Allen said.

But agency members said they're pleased to hear that 116 companies are planning expansions and anticipate needing an additional 825,190 square feet within two years. They think the projections are clear indicators that the town's business and industrial parks will continue to grow.

James F. Dentinger, vice president of Ciminelli Development Co. Inc., agreed with the upbeat forecast. He announced Friday that PaineWebber will become the first tenant in Ciminelli's Village Park Building I at 6380 Main St. Dentinger said the national securities firm is opening its first Amherst branch office and will employ nine people. The payroll is expected to increase to 18 within two years.

Dentinger said the commercial parks' flexible space and potential for expansion are attractive incentives to growing businesses.

"When companies can't expand in one place, they could be tempted to move out of the region. The availability of real estate can be a big issue," he said.

In related developments, the Industrial Development Agency board approved tax incentives to the Williamsville-based Zaepfel Development Co. Inc. to build two new buildings in the Northpointe Parkway between North French and Sweet Home roads. The multi-tenant office, warehouse and distribution facilities will cost $2.6 million to build and will have 56,000 square feet of space.

Zaepfel Development will receive $380,664 in property tax breaks over 10 years, will save $88,000 in sales taxes and $23,170 in mortgage recording taxes. Agency officials estimated that the new buildings will create or retain 202 jobs, but board member James Cullinan questioned the figures. He said the agency's practice of combining job retentions and new positions into one reporting line is misleading.

"I think the numbers here are wishful thinking -- merely smoke and mirrors," Cullinan said.

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