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Niagara County has high bid for 3 buildings

LOCKPORT – Niagara County was the high bidder – perhaps the only bidder – in an online auction for three buildings in downtown Lockport on Thursday.

Although the county did not win automatically because its bid of $3.6 million was less than the auction’s reserve price, the county entered into immediate negotiations with the seller, C-III Capital Partners of Irving, Texas, and made a deal.

“They’re considering us the winning bidder at $3.6 million,” County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said Thursday afternoon. He said the county had drawn up a contract for that price and sent it to C-III late Thursday. The company will review it in an internal committee within 15 days, Joerg said, and the county hopes that the sale will be approved.

The action came after an exciting few minutes at a unique midday County Legislature meeting in which the 11 lawmakers present – seven from the Republican majority and all four Democrats – voted unanimously six times in about 10 minutes to keep increasing the county’s bid after the numbers on the computer screen rose above the $2.4 million the Legislature had authorized March 3.

The county didn’t know whom it was bidding against, and the auction rules allowed the seller to bid up to the secret reserve price.

“We might be the only bidder except for the bank,” Assistant County Attorney R. Thomas Burgasser speculated during the last few seconds of the online auction.

The county seems to have bought 50 and 111 Main St. and 20-40 East Ave., which were being sold as a package.

The county has leases through 2018 on 111 Main, where several county departments are located, and on 20-40 East, headquarters of the county Social Services Department. The third building, the former home of the Niagara County Community College Small Business Development Center, is vacant.

The county’s future space needs have become an object of discussion, with a special committee created to address the issue. “We have other viable options. We’re committed to the City of Lockport,” said Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport.

County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said that buying the three buildings might be the cheapest choice. He said that the notion of constructing a new county office building on Davison Road had been discussed but that the cost estimate is $15 million.

Burgasser said there’s a $5.7 million estimate for cleaning up and renovating the old county infirmary, also known as the Switzer Building. The Legislature voted last year to sell the building, vacant since 2003, to R.B. Mac Construction Co. of Lockport, but the deal hasn’t closed, although, according to Burgasser, it’s not dead.

If the county ends up with the downtown buildings, they would come off the tax rolls. The city would lose about $58,000 a year in tax revenue and the Lockport School District would lose about $94,000 a year.

To make up for that, Updegrove said, “we had an agreement among the legislators that we would provide a low-cost power credit to the school.”

As for the city, he said the Legislature is willing to pay for a city crew to plow snow and do other work on the parking lots and grounds, making up that hole in the city budget.

Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said, “On the one hand, I am glad we will have county offices continuing to be on Main Street. It’s good traffic and a good use of office space. But it’s hard to see something of that magnitude come off the tax rolls.” She said that there is nothing firm on a maintenance deal, although the city already owns the parking lot behind 111 Main.

The city had offered the county space in Harrison Place, the city-controlled former auto parts plant at Walnut and Washburn streets, for the departments now in the two leased buildings.

Glatz said, “It’s limited in parking and they didn’t have the square footage we needed for both buildings.”

Legislators had received a letter from Lockport developer David L. Ulrich, the three buildings’ onetime owner, urging the county not to buy them. Ulrich said the buildings need a lot of work, but Burgasser, citing estimates from county department heads, said Ulrich exaggerated the expenses by about $500,000 a year.