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Demolition of The Pier might stymie tax sale

In the five years since The Pier ceased operations on Buffalo's outer harbor, its city property tax obligations have continued to mount and now total $2.2 million.

To get its money, the city is resorting to foreclosure and putting the former waterfront bar and restaurant, located at 325 Fuhrmann Blvd., on the block at its tax auction late next month. For seven years, Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection has shielded EDB-Buffalo, the corporation that owns the buildings, from foreclosure.

"It's the biggest outstanding tax bill in town," said Bruna Michaux, the city's assessment and taxation commissioner. "Now that they've discharged their Chapter 11, we're in a position to collect what we can."

But that plan has a major wrinkle: The buildings are scheduled for demolition. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the land on which the privately owned buildings are located, plans to raze the structures next summer to make way for a massive redevelopment of the waterfront property.

David Gregory, the NFTA's corporation counsel and real property manager, said EDB-Buffalo's property tax obligations don't involve the transportation agency.

"The issue of the tax bills involves the buildings EDB owns, not our land. The fact of the matter is there are no liens on the land," Gregory said.

City Corporation Counsel Michael Risman reported "zero communication" between the NFTA and the city on the demolition plans.

"This is the first I'm hearing about it," Risman said in response to a reporter's inquiry.

But the buildings' limited future won't necessarily ruin the city's foreclosure and auction plans.

"It could end up being a good thing," said Risman, noting that EDB-Buffalo also owes more than $400,000 in county property taxes, along with a laundry list of liens against the property by banks and vendors.

"Taking it to foreclosure would clear the title," he said. "With the pending demolition, it's highly unlikely there would be any bidders, so the title would be struck to the city."

That is not expected to disrupt the NFTA's plans for the Buffalo Lakefront Group to kick off a $750 million makeover of a largely fallow waterfront tract. In the past year, the city ended a long-standing dispute with the NFTA over which entity legally owns the 120 acres targeted for a massive residential, entertainment and recreational redevelopment.

The waterfront complex, which began in 1989 as Shooters Waterfront Cafe, came back to life as The Pier in May 1992, bolstered by yet another EDB-Buffalo management lineup, which included local businessmen James Cosentino and James "Harry" Williams. Despite the new partners' business experience and efforts to open the venue as a "summer-only" operation, The Pier went dark after its summer 2000 run.

Jim Williams, nephew of James Williams and spokesman for the defunct corporation, blasted the city's attempt to collect back taxes, dating to 1990-1994 and 2001-2005, from the final group of owners.

"They didn't operate the business during those time periods. They paid their bills when they were running the business and have no other obligations," Williams said.

He also said that while EDB-Buffalo still is listed as The Pier's owner, the group has "no continuing interest in the building" and is "perfectly happy to let them foreclose."

Since 2002, the NFTA has leased the site to Kevin Townsell, who has operated it as Festival Grounds at The Pier for large events and private parties. Townsell's group, whose lease will end this fall, has no property tax obligations.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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