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Uniland faces loss of grant in Lancaster $490,000 hinges on tenant by March

Uniland Development Co. will have to pay back a $490,000 federal grant if it doesn't attract a tenant to a vacant industrial park in the Town of Lancaster by March.

Uniland has spent $7 million getting its Eastport Commerce Center ready for use, and prospective tenants have shown interest in the site, but it has sat empty for eight years.

The company hasn't met the project's job-creation target, which was tied to the grant, and officials told Uniland it won't receive another extension after this latest deadline.

"Nobody wants to have to go this route," said Kenneth J. Swanekamp, director of business assistance in Erie County's Department of Environment and Planning. "You keep hoping something's going to happen, but at some point you gotta say we can't go any longer."

Development officials say they don't know why Uniland has struggled to bring a tenant to Eastport, but they believe the industrial park remains poised for success.

Uniland executives say they aren't giving up on the project, which has received assistance from Erie County and Town of Lancaster officials.

"The county and the Lancaster [Industrial Development Agency] have been partners in helping us turn the investment in infrastructure at Eastport Commerce Center into real jobs," said Carl Montante Jr., Uniland's vice president of marketing and strategic initiatives.

"Regardless of what happens with the grant, we will continue to work together to fulfill that mutual goal. We all remain focused on seeing jobs created at the site."

Uniland received a $490,339 community development block grant for the Eastport project in 2003, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD grant was funneled to Uniland through Erie County and the Lancaster IDA.

"It was a good idea at the time," Supervisor Robert H. Giza said at this month's Lancaster IDA meeting, where the grant repayment was discussed.

The Eastport industrial park consists of 128 acres at the northwest corner of Walden Avenue and Pavement Road.

The site is certified as "shovel-ready," with roads and utility connections in place.

In 2003, The Buffalo News reported that CarQuest planned to open a 120,000-square-foot distribution center there. A trade publication put the cost at $5 million to $10 million.

CarQuest never built the center there or elsewhere, Uniland said.

The company in 2006 said it was considering constructing a 110,000-square-foot "spec" building on the property, if it received a commitment for a portion of the building, but that also never happened.

Buffalo Niagara Enterprise over the years has helped to market the Eastport site.

The business group has received expressions of interest from seven large potential tenants and 41 smaller prospective tenants, said Thomas A. Kucharski, the group's president and CEO.

"That's been a really active site for us," he said.

Eastport was one of several locations Yahoo considered for the data center the company eventually built in Lockport.

As a condition of accepting the HUD grant, Uniland was required to create 20 jobs for low- to moderate-income workers.

Uniland has received a number of extensions on the job-creation requirement, including a 24-month extension it was granted in September 2008 and another after that deadline came and went.

HUD hasn't focused its attention on Eastport, but the agency does keep track of block-grant recipients that haven't met job-creation targets, said Bill O'Connell, director of community planning and development for the HUD office in Buffalo that covers upstate.

"We're asking our communities to look into projects of that type -- projects that are lagging a little bit," O'Connell said. "We try to be sensitive and flexible where we can."

Uniland has seen success at other industrial parks it owns, such as CrossPoint Business Park in Amherst, Swanekamp noted.

"They didn't spend that kind of money to pay taxes on vacant land," Swanekamp said of Uniland's Eastport project. "[Success] was everybody's expectation -- ours, the town's, Uniland's. I wish I could tell you why it didn't happen."