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A new pilot program that will channel incentives into 18 neighborhood commercial districts won endorsements Monday from the heads of several business groups throughout the city.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello and officials from the city's development agency met with community leaders to outline the Live Zone Targeted Business Incentives Pilot Program. The initiative includes matching grants, low-interest loans, work force training and technical assistance.

Businesses that are located in the existing state Empire Zone or within the boundaries of a proposed Empire Zone would be eligible for the city incentives. In addition, business associations will be permitted to include up to three noncontiguous blocks that have high vacancies or other forms of economic distress.

Masiello announced last winter that officials were working on an effort geared toward retaining and expanding smaller neighborhood-based businesses. In recent months, city officials have been getting input from various groups. Details of the Live Zone program were announced Monday and include:

A program that will allow qualifying businesses to obtain up to $5,000 in matching grants for projects that will enhance the company, including equipment purchases, physical improvements and marketing campaigns. Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. has earmarked $50,000 for the first phase.

Low-interest loans of up to $25,000 to encourage businesses to expand or relocate within the city. The Live Zone Loan program is basically the same as the Buffalo economic agency's existing Neighborhood Microenterprise Loan Program, only targeted to those specific areas.

Accounting and technical assistance, work force training programs and seminars to help hone the leadership skills of neighborhood business owners.

The Live Zone benefits would be in addition to incentives that businesses may qualify for under the state Empire Zone program, including tax breaks and utility discounts.

Raul Vazquez, a Niagara Street businessman and a leader in the Latino Business Association, credited the city for creating new tools to help smaller enterprises. In the past, Vazquez has been critical of some city economic-development initiatives.

"We often felt neglected on Niagara Street. But I think we're seeing a positive trend with these programs," said Vazquez, who operates Urban Family Practice, a medical complex on Niagara Street that is currently planning an expansion.

The Live Zone initiative also was praised by Michael E. Ferdman of Forever Elmwood and Venris E. Brooks, a Jefferson Avenue business owner.

"I grew up not far from Jefferson and I can remember how thriving that business district was," said Brooks, who owns Jim Bell Cleaners. "I think that with some help, it can make a comeback."

For information on the incentives, business owners may call Jeanine Baran, the Buffalo agency's neighborhood business specialist, at 842-6923, Ext. 115.


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