For the past 6 1/2 years, I have been both the supervisor of Hamburg and the chairman of the Hamburg Industrial Development Agency. Throughout that time, there have been frequent attempts to curtail the authority of local IDAs.
The main difference this year is the blatant attempt by some to mischaracterize what an IDA does, particularly with respect to adaptive reuse, in order to create the false impression that the IDAs are abusing their authority.
The two main arguments being espoused by these critics are that IDAs give away taxpayer money and help non-industrial businesses.
Regarding the first argument -- yes, IDAs offer tax incentives to businesses. But like any issue, there is a benefits side to this as well. This is the side that the critics do not want the public to know because it disrupts their agenda.
It has been repeatedly shown that the return on public investment through IDAs is many times greater than the cost. For example: One project in Hamburg was paying $15,000 per year in taxes. After the Hamburg IDA assisted in developing the property, it now pays $170,000 per year. These results actually reduce the tax burden on residents.
As for the funding of "questionable" projects, this authority comes from a policy called adaptive reuse. This policy was begun as a way to address the growing problem of vacant and dilapidated buildings.
When I took office in 2006, the vacancy rate of business space in Hamburg was more than 25 percent. Over the six years that followed, the IDA aggressively employed adaptive reuse and today, our vacancy rate is less than 10 percent. These are real results.
The five local IDAs understand it is generally more expensive to rehabilitate an old building than to build a new one. We also understand that it is good public policy to encourage reuse of old buildings rather than to build new. Fortunately, through the adaptive reuse, incentives can be given to make the rehabilitation option more cost effective.
Since the results cannot be disputed, an attempt is being made to reframe the issue to focus on pizzerias or doughnut shops. But the reality is, this is about addressing the vacant eyesore. The success local IDAs have had in helping address our vacancy issues should be applauded, not derided.
One final point: Local IDAs do not have an "unfair advantage" over towns without IDAs. What needs to be understood is that the Erie County IDA has the authority to use these very same tools, yet has chosen not to.
The fact that the supervisor of Tonawanda is complaining about being at a disadvantage speaks volumes about the ECIDA's refusal to assist local problems; not the local IDAs' efforts to address those problems. And it speaks volumes as to why the local IDAs are so adamantly against being controlled by the ECIDA.
Steven J. Walters is supervisor of the Town of Hamburg.