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Property management once meant changing the light bulbs and clearing the parking lot of snow. Today, renting office space is a different game where tenants call many of the shots.

And with good reason.

Competition for tenants is fierce. In new suburban office parks and some downtown buildings, developers treat tenants like guests at a five-star hotel. It's a tough act for some older buildings in Buffalo to follow, where high vacancy rates push down rents to as low as $8 a square foot, compared with rates up to $28 in the suburbs.

And with few new businesses seeking office space, growing a tenant base involves luring away someone else's client.

"They're all going after the same slice of the pie," said Patricia A. Wittmeyer, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Building Owners and Managers Association. "Any property manager worth his salt knows you keep your tenants happy by offering them more than the basic necessities."

Ciminelli Development Co. bought parking lots under the name Pro Park for its downtown tenants. And both Ciminelli and Uniland Development Co. use sophisticated computer programs to track client calls and how long it takes to solve a problem -- usually less than an hour.

"If the buildings are relatively equal, what sets them apart is the property management services," said Douglas J. Engl, director of property management for Uniland Development Co., one of the largest property owners and managers in the area. "How quickly can the property management services respond to a problem. And do they anticipate things before they're problems."

Carl P. Paladino, who owns nine office buildings in the city and manages the Guaranty Building, has a long list of reasons why none of his properties is entirely full and some are completely empty. The downtown area has a 19 percent vacancy rate, three times the rate of Boston, Toronto and Amherst.

On his list are tax breaks given to suburban office parks and irrational fears hat people routinely get mugged walking down Main Street in broad daylight. He gripes about the fact that suburban streets are clear while the city has to enact a driving ban to rid its roads of snow.

Not long ago, Paladino said a company that approved medical procedures for insurance companies was going to occupy the entire building he owns at 100 Seneca St. The sophisticated phone bank would have brought 400 jobs to keep the business running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

When the company discovered that driving bans because of poor snow removal happened with some frequency in Buffalo, it killed the deal, Paladino said.

And tenants say Paladino is one of the better downtown landlords. A lawyer is leaving his office in the Statler Towers for space one in Paladino's buildings because he says the Statler Towers are decaying.

"I just want to escape. The elevators don't work and he's putting no money into the building," said the attorney, who asked that his name not be used.

The owner of the Statler Towers admits that he has not invested heavily in upgrading and modernizing the building because it might be the location of a casino in downtown Buffalo.

"We're not trying to retain tenants because of the potential of the casino," said owner Gerald A. Buchheit. "We're not trying to renew leases."

However, he said he has kept the building in working order and the elevators passed inspection recently.

Many downtown office buildings are not getting complete overhauls because the rents would not cover such work, but buildings are renovated on a piecemeal basis. When Choice One Online moved into the Ellicott Square, Paladino and the company both paid for the renovations and upgrades.

Providing an attractive office space is just the beginning.

Ciminelli has grabbed tenants for less tangible reasons.

A business in the communications industry wanted a picnic table outside its Amherst office where its employee could eat lunch and relax. Other tenants in the area had them. The property owner said no to the $150 request.

"It may seem minor but the inflexibility of providing an amenity that they perceived as important to their employees became a contentious issue," said Fred Krajacic, vice president of property management for Ciminelli.

Ciminelli manages hundreds of clients in more than 5.5 million square feet of commercial space in the Buffalo area and recently won a service provider award from Site Selection magazine.

Providing top-notch service means going beyond what the tenant expects.

Ciminelli equips many of its service vehicles with snow plows to tidy up what its outside contractor might have missed.

Uniland, which manages about 5 million square feet of commercial space and 400 tenants in Buffalo and Rochester, is building retail space within some of its office parks to serve tenants.

"It's always less costly and less difficult to over-service the customers you have than to get a brand new client off the street," said Engl.

And now developers are bringing that approach to property management in downtown office buildings. Ciminelli is renovating the Lafayette Court building on Main Street and adding features like a fitness center and a deli with computer kiosks for customers.

Aames Home Loans found the downtown location so attractive that it left its office on Sweet Home Road in Amherst. The home equity lending company needed to expand from four to nine people and could not at that location.

Employees must now pay for their parking, but even if that cost were included in the rent, the space would still be cheaper than the suburbs, said Randy Pfeifer, branch manager.

"We do a lot of business in the Southtowns so it was hard for some customers to come to our office," said Randy Pfeifer, branch manager of the home equity lending company. "And the space is much nicer than what we had in Amherst."


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