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NFTA pulls plug on plan to sell port site to Canada furniture-maker for 250-employee plant

An ambitious plan to sell the former Port of Buffalo complex on the outer harbor to a Canadian furniture manufacturer – and create 250 new jobs – is dead.

Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials acknowledged late Wednesday that efforts dating from last September to sell the property for $4.7 million to Gracious Living Corp. of Woodbridge, Ont., collapsed at the 5 p.m. deadline. Authority spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer would offer no specifics on why the deal fell through, although NFTA officials have previously indicated Gracious Living was conducting extensive environmental inspections of the cavernous buildings that once housed Ford Motor Co. facilities.

“The nature of the deal was complicated with many moving parts,” Hartmayer said. “They just weren’t ready to complete the deal within a reasonable time frame.”

Though the project was announced last September with great fanfare by Empire State Development Corp. – accompanied by comments from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – it seemed plagued by problems from the outset.

The NFTA already had granted two previous extensions – 30 and 60 days – to allow Gracious Living to answer all its questions.

The company approached the authority Wednesday with another extension request, Hartmayer said, and this one was denied.

“We have opted not to extend this exclusive arrangement any further,” he said, adding that negotiations continued almost until the deadline.

“We were not interested after the two previous extensions,” Hartmayer said.

The NFTA had unsuccessfully tried for years to sell the property through an aggressive marketing program. Hartmayer said that it will revive those efforts soon by issuing a new request for proposals, or RFP, by prospective buyers.

“We will place the property back on the market shortly, especially in light of numerous buyers expressing interest in the property,” he said.

Gracious Living President Enzo Macri did not return a call seeking comment.

The company’s original aim to expand in Buffalo took advantage of economic incentives offered by New York State, which it cited in September as helpful. Empire State Development offered $2 million in performance-based Excelsior Jobs Program tax credits in return for the company’s job-creation commitments.

Now the failure to sell the property looms as a bitter disappointment for the NFTA, which already has negotiated the sale of the rest of its vast holdings on the outer harbor to two state agencies – Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and the state parks system. Selling the remaining 50 acres to the Toronto-area maker of outdoor furniture and other products was deemed a crucial move, even though the waterfront land would have been conveyed to a private rather than a public entity.

The move also was viewed with great anticipation within the NFTA because it offered a way to achieve its long-held goal of getting out of the waterfront property management business.

In announcing the deal last September, NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky said, “We’re extremely excited and proud. It’s a great final chapter for the NFTA and the waterfront – the last piece of the puzzle.”

Hartmayer said Zemsky was among those on the NFTA team trying to negotiate a last-minute deal, citing the chairman’s “extensive background in real estate development.”

“He took a real interest in this,” Hartmayer said.

But now the NFTA appears saddled with one remaining parcel that it has tried for years to market, despite attractive features such as 400,000 square feet of warehousing and office space, high bay doors, rail and water access, and parking for 500 vehicles.

Hartmayer acknowledged that the NFTA now must continue to deal with the huge complex, even as it transfers the rest of the vast outer harbor lands to the state. The parcel, known as the “port terminal complex,” never seemed to fit into the state’s new but as yet undetermined plans.

But now the future of the port terminal complex must be addressed. Hartmayer acknowledged that “all options are on the table.”

“Anybody is open to responding to the RFP, whether public or private,” he said.

He also said the NFTA was not depending on proceeds from the sale to balance its 2014-15 operating budget because the anticipated $4.7 million was slated for the capital reserve fund.

Gracious Living had hoped to establish its first U.S. location, as well as access to the huge American market, and originally looked to be operating by late this year. The company makes outdoor furniture, indoor and outdoor organizing products, garage utility systems and pet accessories sold in big-box stores.

It operates two manufacturing facilities in suburban Toronto employing about 1,000 people and lists $100 million in sales.

Macri said last September that the company was looking forward to expanding on the Buffalo waterfront and expected to invest tens of millions of dollars into rehabilitating the vacant buildings and installing new plastic injection machinery. He also said Gracious Living was primarily attracted to the location by its proximity to Toronto, and all along had set its sights on Buffalo.

At the time he also said that another attraction was access to highway, rail and even water, adding that the company planned to look into the use of former port facilities for maritime shipping.