With the stroke of a pen in a chilly lobby, the Statler Towers was placed in new hands.
Businessman Mark D. Croce took ownership of the historic 18-story downtown property Wednesday at a deed-signing ceremony attended by dozens of onlookers. Croce said he is ready to get to work on reviving the Statler through his entity, Statler City LLC. "This property will have a life, and 20 years from now, everybody is going to look back and say, 'Thank God we saved the old historic Statler building,' " he said.
Seated at a table in front of the Golden Ballroom's entrance, the trustee in the Statler bankruptcy case, Morris L. Horwitz, signed the deed amid applause and picture-taking. The document then was handed to Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul for recording.
Horwitz noted about 5,000 bankruptcies are filed each year in the region's bankruptcy court district, but few attract any attention. Spectators, including political leaders, filled the lobby of the unheated building, with portable heaters offering meager warmth.
Croce pledged to follow through on a redevelopment of the Niagara Square landmark, which he said will unfold in phases. The Statler has been mothballed since January 2010.
"We're going to bring it back to life in a way that nobody can anticipate, and then we're going to develop it floor by floor as the market demands," he said. "We're not going to flood it with a silver-bullet plan. We're going to come up with a plan that makes sense and redevelop it as the market will allow."
Croce has asked for $5.3 million in public funds to cover the cost of immediate repairs at the Statler. But he acknowledged Statler City needs to provide a more detailed plan to the city in order to secure such funding.
"To the mayor, I tell him, we'll continue to work on the plan to satisfy his needs, so we can justify that this is an investment, this is a public-private partnership," Croce said. "We're in this for the long haul, we're in it with the city and with the taxpayers. I'm a taxpayer myself, so I understand why he has to be careful to make sure he's doing the right thing."
Croce's deal for the Statler is worth about $700,000, including $200,000 for the property and about $500,000 in unpaid taxes for which his entity assumed responsibility.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said he believes the city has found a source of potential public funds to support the Statler, "but we're not just opening the checkbook and turning over money."
"We have asked for a comprehensive plan for the entire building," Brown said. "We have asked for financials that will support that plan, and I know that Mark and his team are working on that."
While he won't commit public funds without those details, Brown said the project sounds promising.
"We could come up with the entire [funding] thing and if we like the plan, we potentially could come up with more," he said. "I think this property, if done right, with the right plan, could create economic opportunity in downtown, jobs for people that live in the city and live in the region, and that's why we are interested in the potential of participating financially."
Croce said Statler City intends to start repairs quickly, such as dealing with loose and broken terra cotta on the exterior, so that barriers around the outside of the building can be safely removed.
Leaking roofs are another immediate concern, and contractors are scheduled to get to work as soon as any remaining ice melts, he said. "That's going to be all out-of-pocket money."
Croce has outlined a plan to redevelop the Statler in stages, starting with the stabilization work, followed by reopening the lower floors for businesses. The third stage involves redeveloping the upper floors, based on market demand.
Henry McCartney, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, said the sale means a significant building rich with history "avoids the fate we all feared."
"We cannot just thank Mark and go home," McCartney said. "Mark and [his attorney, Robert Knoer] have made it very clear that the Statler is not a typical development and that this building will need and deserves additional support to truly ensure its future."
At a hearing held just prior to the ceremony, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Carl Bucki observed it was the 49th such hearing in the case of BSC Development of Buffalo, the Bashar Issa-controlled company that ran the Statler. "It's been with us for a long time," Bucki said to Horwitz. "I think what it does demonstrate is the power and effectiveness of Chapter 11 to deal with complex issues."
Horwitz reflected on tough tasks that sometimes came with his duties, such as shutting down the complex and requiring some longtime tenants to leave. "Here we were coming along telling them, 'Get out,' " he said. "They weren't always happy to see me on the street."
Horwitz also recalled worrying about the massive crowds outside the shuttered Statler with its crumbling exterior for events like the Taste of Buffalo and the Gus Macker basketball tournament. But he said the city was cooperative in addressing safety issues.