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Improved Brownfield Cleanup Program will help maintain region’s momentum

It is imperative that state legislators and the governor reconcile their differences on the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program and settle on a long-term extension as part of the budget process.

Without that program, set to expire at the end of the year, tens of millions of dollars in development projects will be lost to this region, alone. It would be an economic disaster for Erie County. The success of the brownfields program is one reason the statewide Environmental Advocates of New York referred to the region as one of the few “pockets of success” in a recent report.

The brownfields program provides tax credits to developers working with contaminated former industrial properties to compensate for the added expenses of cleanup. Despite many successes, the program has been under fire for providing tax credits for residential and hotel projects downstate that would have gone forward without them.

Those abuses need to be stopped, but without killing the program entirely. The governor, Assembly and Senate each has a vision for the program, but none of the proposals align. Until that happens, the program remains in jeopardy.

The governor’s plan, with its more restrictive eligibility guidelines, would do the best job of encouraging development without being a handout of taxpayer money to undeserving developers.

The Assembly proposal merely expands the current program. The Senate proposed an extension of the current program with some minor eligibility changes.

The governor’s proposal would extend the program through 2025, but limit tax credits to cleanup costs instead of any development expenses.

His desire to make changes is understandable. Opportunistic downstate developers used the program to help fund projects in high-value areas, including upscale condominiums and office towers in midtown Manhattan and a Ritz-Carlton in White Plains. Projects that would have been built without the tax credits.

In contrast, this region has used the program responsibly, helping pay for the NORAMPAC facility in Niagara Falls, the Conventus medical office building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, SolarCity at RiverBend and downtown’s HarborCenter, among many worthy projects. The region has more projects in the works that would benefit from the brownfields program, particularly “Project Hello,” a planned $102 million development by a steel company expected to create more than 170 jobs in South Buffalo.

While the governor’s proposal is the best of the three, a few tweaks being pushed by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership would make it even more effective:

• Ensuring eligible expenses include all site preparation work.

• Ensuring the appraisal determining post-cleanup fair market value reflects the site’s status as a former brownfield with legacy costs.

• Allowing sites to meet either household poverty or unemployment thresholds under Environmental Zone requirements, but not both.

This region cannot afford to lose a program that has brought new life and new jobs to so many old industrial sites. A long-term extension of the Brownfield Cleanup Program is a must.