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Developer could buy Statler by late March
Bankruptcy hearing reveals strategy shift

Mark D. Croce plans to follow through on buying the Statler Towers, rather than having the City of Buffalo take title to the property, brightening the prospects that the abandoned landmark will survive.

The shift in strategy was disclosed Thursday at a bankruptcy court hearing. Under an agreement with the trustee in the Statler bankruptcy case, Croce's company, Statler City LLC, would close the roughly $700,000 deal by late March.

"We are gratified that Mr. Croce has chosen to take a step forward to put into motion his plans for re-using the building," said Morris Horwitz, the trustee.

Statler City agreed last year to purchase the property, but its effort stalled over its call for $5.2 million in public funds to make immediate repairs. That created doubt about the prospects for reviving the 18-story Niagara Square building, which was shuttered a year ago.

Statler City recently discussed having the city take title to the Statler, with Croce's firm being named the designated developer. City officials had viewed that as a possible interim step toward private ownership of the Statler.

To allow the deal to proceed, the City of Buffalo, Erie County and the city Sewer and Water authorities are being asked to not pursue taxes, charges or interest -- amounting to more than $400,000 -- from the Statler bankruptcy estate. Those claims, covering taxes and fees that have accrued since the bankruptcy case was filed in April 2009, would become the obligation of the Statler's buyer, instead of the bankruptcy estate.

If the various public entities agree to the waivers by the next hearing, scheduled for Feb. 22, the building's sale could close in late March.

But without those waivers, Horwitz said he will ask Bankruptcy Court Judge Carl Bucki for authority to abandon the property. Horwitz has raised that idea previously as a possible last resort, but he has not pressed for the authority while negotiations continued.

Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning, described Thursday's developments as positive for the Statler's future.

"The city always wanted to see this get into the hands of a private developer, directly," Mehaffy said.

As for the $5.2 million public funds sought by Statler City, Mehaffy said that issue remains unchanged, with Mayor Byron W. Brown continuing to seek more comprehensive information about the redevelopment plan before committing any public funds.

Other parties, including Long Island-based developer Uri Kaufman and local resident Bruce Biltekoff, have continued to show interest in buying the Statler.

Under its purchase agreement, Statler City would pay $200,000 for the Niagara Square property; those funds already have been placed in an escrow account. Separately, the entity would be responsible for the outstanding taxes and fees, bringing the total price tag of the deal to about $700,000.

"Preservation Buffalo Niagara is delighted Statler City LLC and Mark are going to go ahead and get this process started with saving" the Statler, said Henry McCartney, the group's executive director. "Mark has stepped up and done an amazing thing that I think the community will appreciate in the future."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com