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Harper ends expansion; Company needs more space to accommodate future growth

Harper International is pulling the plug on a planned $5.5 million expansion at its Village of Lancaster campus and is looking for new space elsewhere in Erie County or – possibly – outside Western New York, a company official confirmed Wednesday.

The village had agreed to sell Harper a paper street and the Lancaster Industrial Development Agency had approved $1.4 million in tax breaks to support the project, but the company believes they need more space than is available at its current location to allow for future growth.

"We want to be somewhere for 20 years. This site is not going to be able to accommodate that," Diana Robbins, Harper's marketing manager, said in an interview.

Town and village officials say they did what they could to boost the Harper expansion, and they're disappointed the company has opted to expand elsewhere.

"I'm going to do everything I can to keep them in Lancaster," said Supervisor Dino J. Fudoli, who also is chairman of the Lancaster IDA.

Fudoli said he believes John L. Visone, a member of the IDA board, played a significant role in blocking the Harper project.

Visone is a principal in a corporation that leases several buildings to Harper and owns extensive property adjacent to the Harper campus. He said it isn't fair to blame him for Harper's decision not to proceed at its current site, which could thrive with a new tenant.

"Progress is people move out, and people move in," Visone told The Buffalo News. "And when a door closes, sometimes two windows open."

Harper International's origins date to 1924, and the maker of industrial materials furnaces evolved in the 1990s to a company specializing in thermal processing solutions. An employee stock ownership plan began in 2011, and the company has grown in recent years.

[JUMP] Harper now leases space in five buildings at 100 W. Drullard Ave. for its 100 or so employees. The company would have moved out of three buildings, owned by Visone's VIV LLC partnership, into new manufacturing, laboratory and office space connected to the two remaining buildings.

The Village of Lancaster approved the project site plan and agreed to sell a paper street needed by Harper for the expansion. And the IDA approved property and sales tax breaks for the expansion, which would have created 15 jobs.

"It's certainly a letdown to know this couldn't be worked out to their satisfaction," said Lancaster Mayor William G. Cansdale Jr.

Harper's campus is bounded by Sheldon Avenue on the east, railroad tracks to the south, and property owned by VIV LLC to the west and north.

Visone, representing VIV LLC, told Harper he would not sell the company any of the property to the north or west, Robbins said. Visone responded that Harper didn't make him a fair offer for one property they discussed.

Also, Visone said that after Harper moves out of the VIV LLC-owned buildings, the company will no longer have access to a VIV LLC-owned driveway that officials were counting on as part of the planned expansion, Robbins said.

Harper said they've been a responsible tenant for years and their continued use of the driveway wouldn't impede Visone's business operations, but Visone said Harper can't expect to continue to use VIV LLC property after ending its lease.

Another factor in Harper's decision is the lengthy permitting process the company faced in running needed power lines over the railroad tracks to the south of the campus.

In the end, all of these factors prompted company officials in the past two weeks to decide expanding at the West Drullard site wasn't the best move for Harper, Robbins said.

Harper now is considering another location in the Town of Lancaster, as well as other sites – both existing manufacturing sites and vacant land – in Buffalo and other suburbs.

The company would prefer to stay in Western New York but is open to moving outside the area and, regardless, hopes to pick the site within six months, Robbins said. "We're definitely keeping all options open," she said.

Visone is looking for new tenants for the buildings to replace Harper, which has a month-to-month lease.

Cansdale, Fudoli and Visone met several times to try to reach a compromise that would appease Harper and Visone.

"That's the frustrating part, that we have somebody who has put his own interests ahead of the interests of the town and the taxpayer," Fudoli said of Visone.

Visone said Fudoli has improperly interfered in what is a standard business negotiation.

"Supervisor Fudoli should be impartial, and he should not be intermingling and trying to malign someone who is a business owner in the village," Visone said.?