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Public funds set to kick in for Croce’s Statler work

After spending $7 million of his own money to repair, upgrade and maintain Statler City, Mark D. Croce is finally ready to submit his expenses for reimbursement.

The Buffalo businessman and developer formally filed papers this week with the city to demonstrate his capital investment and seek the first draw of public dollars that were promised to help shore up the landmark towers.

The money, totaling $5.3 million in “City-by-City” funds, had been pledged by Mayor Byron W. Brown to support Croce’s efforts to restore and revive the building after the developer bought it out of bankruptcy in 2011 for $700,000. But the taxpayer funds have not been touched until now.

Rather, Croce had to spend his own cash first, and prove that it was used for stabilizing the outside of the building and making safety-related repairs or improvements. He also had to demonstrate that he could create a sustainable business in the building to keep it operating.

Only then could he seek the city dollars, in three separate installments.

“A lot of people thought I had the money and spent it,” Croce said. “It goes into the building. It’s the city’s money. I’m just the beneficiary, and the money has to be spent and reimbursed.”

Croce originally had committed to spend $2 million to $3 million to revive the three lower floors, which are now a highly successful banquet, entertainment and dining operation that most recently hosted the wedding of entertainer Vanessa Williams.

Instead, he has nearly tripled his investment in capital improvements, general improvements, furniture, fixtures, equipment, other repairs and maintenance. That includes installing new chandeliers, replacing the lower roofs, reconstructing parapet walls, redoing the ballrooms, replastering ceilings and rebuilding the hardwood marquee floors.

“Everything you can see inside the property and even a lot of the work outside the property has all been done by us to date with no public money,” Croce said. “I’ve never received a check. The money has to be reinvested in the property, and then I can seek reimbursements.”

In the meantime, work continues on repairs to the terra cotta facade, the high roof and other exterior areas. Croce said he hopes to “mobilize the team before this winter,” so he can finish the job and start tackling the rest of the building.

“The mayor is just as anxious as we are to see the project move to the next stage,” Croce said. “He’s been very supportive and behind us 100 percent.”

So far, the work has paid off, with the Statler regularly booked for weddings and other large events since Croce reopened it. “We saved the Statler. It’s alive and well,” he said.

Now he’s turning his attention to the rest of the building, hoping to redevelop the upper floors into possibly 300 to 400 residential apartments and other mixed-use functions. That also would help the city meet Brown’s stated goal of adding 2,000 new residential units to downtown Buffalo’s housing stock in the next three years. “There’s an awful lot of pent-up demand for residential housing,” he said.

However, such a project, likely to cost $80 million to $100 million, is “out of my wheelhouse as far as size and complexity,” Croce said. So he’s seeking a “strategic joint venture partner” with residential development expertise. He’s already reached out to local developers without much success, but is now negotiating with “out-of-town folks” from Boston, Texas and Rochester, particularly the latter two, although he emphasized that he’s still “open to talking” to anyone else until a deal is signed.

“I’m going to continue to wade through those. I need someone who’s serious, who has the capital and wherewithal,” he said. “It’s time to take it to the next level. The timing couldn’t be better.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com