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Eagan pulls out of Statler renovation ; Withdrawal leaves Croce as sole investor in bid to save building

Downtown developer Mark D. Croce is now flying solo in his attempt to save the Statler Towers, after businessman James J. Eagan withdrew from his partnership with Croce because the effort was taking too long to finalize.

Croce bought out Eagan's stake in Statler City LLC this month, after Eagan "grew impatient with the process" and "wanted to move on," said Eagan's attorney, Robert P. Fine.

The parting was "very amicable," Fine said, and both he and Croce said the partners remain close friends. Fine said Eagan would do "whatever he could" to help Croce's effort, short of a financial investment.

"He thinks it's a good project and he thinks Mark Croce is absolutely the right person to put it together," Fine said. "He's absolutely supportive of Mark and would do anything he could to help him."

Fine would not go into details about the size of the investment, except to say that Eagan was not "a minor partner" in the venture. But Croce said the buyout would not inhibit him financially. "I made him whole and basically wrote a check to take out his position," he said.

However, the decision now leaves the prominent restaurateur and hotel developer as the only investor in the project, which is widely seen as the last chance to save the 800,000-square-foot Statler from either abandonment or the wrecking ball.

"Buffalo's everything to me. I eat, live, breathe and sleep it every day, and I will do everything I can to save this building from demise," said Croce, who owns other properties near the Statler. "Life isn't always a bowl of cherries. We're putting all our best efforts in."

Eagan, a partner and executive vice president of Midwood Financial Services, had been an active part of the Statler partnership that in August offered to buy the landmark building for $200,000, plus $500,000 in back taxes. He and Croce are friends and serve together on the board of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority

But as the process dragged on through U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and the efforts to raise more money, including more than $5 million in public funding, stalled, Eagan began to lose interest. Fine said Eagan's business "takes a lot of time, and he's very active."

"It's taken a long time to get where it is, and as the time has gone on, he's just decided to move on," Fine said. "He's very hopeful that the deal will go forward, but he's out."

"Real estate's really not his main business, and it is mine," Croce said. "He thought there would be more awareness and support from the city and the state. He wanted to work with me, but it just got to the point where he was frustrated with the lack of progress and maybe this wasn't something he wanted to pursue."

Eagan's departure comes as Croce and his attorney are engaged in critical discussions with city officials over a proposal that could resolve a major sticking point. The parties are due back in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Buffalo, before Chief Judge Carl L. Bucki, on Jan. 12.

Croce and Eagan have sought more than $5 million in public funding to make emergency repairs to stabilize the building before undertaking any redevelopment. But the city and state won't give them any taxpayer money without a comprehensive plan for redevelopment.

The duo have previously said they initially plan to revive the first two floors -- including the banquet facility -- to ensure a revenue stream and base of business for the building before launching any revitalization of the other floors based on market demand. However, that hasn't been sufficiently detailed to satisfy government leaders.

That's led to worries that the bid may fall through, in which case the court might declare the building abandoned, leaving a decaying eyesore on Niagara Square directly across from City Hall.

"Abandonment is the worst possible scenario," Croce said. "The last thing anybody needs is to look at an abandoned building on Niagara Square. So we're trying to work with the city to create a scenario that becomes a win-win for all parties, because abandonment would put that building into the abyss."

Under the current proposal being hashed out, the city would take title to the property, designating Croce as the primary developer.

"The city is trying to work with us," Croce said. "We remain open-minded and eager to come up with a solution. Hopefully, we'll have something to present to Judge Bucki that is in the best interests of the Statler and the community."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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