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Renew the program ; 'Renewal Community' tax incentive is critical to Buffalo's development

The federal Renewal Community incentive program has jump-started projects important to this area but it was unaccountably allowed to lapse a year ago and, despite action in the House, the Senate has ignored it. It's up to congressional leaders to revive this important piece of legislation for the 40 locations it has benefited and, in particular, the Northeast cities where it makes the most impact.

The Renewal Community program was set to expire at the end of last year. The House passed an extension of the program last December, but the legislation has been ignored in the Senate.

Rep. Brian Higgins, then a member of the committee, brought Buffalo developer Howard Zemsky to Washington, D.C., to explain the important roles that the program played in the redevelopment of the old Larkin Building in Buffalo. Now a modern office building, it has brought First Niagara Financial Group's headquarters into the city. The tax incentives have aided in more than $105 million in investment by local developers and businesses and helped to create more than 3,000 jobs over the last decade.

These incentives are provided for investing in economically distressed areas as defined by crime, unemployment and poverty and providing further incentives to hire people who live within that census tract area. There are 40 Renewal Community areas throughout the nation, including Buffalo-Lackawanna, Jamestown, Niagara Falls and Rochester. Schenectady is also among the New York contingent.

Following the hearing, the House passed the bill extending the Renewal Community incentives last December and sent it to the Senate, where it has sat for a year without any action. It's not an uncommon problem in the Senate, where more than 400 bills died awaiting action in this session alone.

This program is valuable to places like Buffalo. The proof is in the success of the Larkin Building and the surrounding neighborhood, as well as other projects by local developers. The tax incentives were vital to the Larkin Building project and the benefit is that the government is not laying money out, but offering a tax incentive to a developer to invest in an economically distressed area that normally would not see that type of revitalization.

This is reducing the tax liability for projects in these distressed areas and, essentially, really doesn't cost the government anything because these are investments that would otherwise not be made.

Besides Higgins, Sen Kirsten E. Gillibrand sent a letter of support signed by other members of the Senate who have renewal communities. Sen. Charles E. Schumer made an early push, along with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, to expand the program to include 2000 census information. That expanded the eligible census tracts in existing areas, including Buffalo.

But it's not majority rule in the Senate, where the tool of filibuster and cloture complicate matters. This is the veto power of the minority at work. Republican members exerted their influence through the arcane rules of the Senate. Because of it, backers needed 60 votes to surmount the Republican bloc. They couldn't get them.

It's up to the next Congress, and the issue could come up as early as this spring. Higgins will continue to push. He should be joined by Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, who will be on the House Ways and Means Committee in Higgins' stead as Republicans claim the majority. Schumer and Gillibrand also need to renew and strengthen their efforts.

The program has already been lost for one year. Every effort must be made to have the benefit restored for economically distressed areas which, unfortunately, includes this one.

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