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Erie Community College weighs Start-Up NY deal in Amherst

Erie Community College – one of the last public colleges or universities in the state to be approved for designation as a Start-Up NY campus – appears to be closing in on a deal that could bring a subsidiary of a large international money management firm to Amherst in exchange for generous tax breaks under the state program.

ECC currently doesn’t have enough space at any of its three campuses for a qualifying Start-Up firm to set up shop. But the college is trying to work out a deal in which BlackRock Niagara LLC would use property at 350 CrossPoint Parkway already owned by parent company BlackRock Inc. and still be eligible for up to 10 years of tax-free operation.

“It would potentially be our first Start-Up company,” said Michael J. Pietkiewicz, senior vice president of operations at ECC.

In 2013, the state launched Start-Up NY – short for SUNY Tax-free Areas to Revitalize and Transform Upstate New York – as a way to encourage businesses to start up, relocate to or expand in New York through affiliations with public and private colleges, universities and community colleges. The program gives tax benefits to eligible companies, including the opportunity to operate free of state and local taxes on or near participating campuses.

ECC is among a handful of schools within SUNY that have not yet been approved for Start-Up status, mostly because college officials are still working to complete a facilities master plan showing where potential Start-Up firms could locate on campus. But state officials are eager for ECC to link with companies, and they identified BlackRock Niagara LLC as a potential partner.

Parent firm BlackRock Inc., which manages more than $4 trillion worldwide and has offices in 30 countries, received $9.2 million in tax breaks from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency in 2014 for a new $80 million data center with 31,000 square feet at 350 CrossPoint Parkway. BlackRock promised to create, by 2018, 25 engineering jobs paying an average of $68,000 per year.

Under the Start-Up program, BlackRock Niagara LLC would commit to an additional 50 high-paying, technical jobs for a separate but related operation.

If the plan gets approved, ECC anticipates that BlackRock Niagara would offer internships and other opportunities for ECC students and graduates, although none of those details has been worked out.

“We’re in negotiations with BlackRock about what the relationship means,” Pietkiewicz said.

ECC’s board first has to sign off on a memorandum of understanding that would allow 350 CrossPoint Parkway to be designated as “on campus” for the purposes of the Start-Up program.

While Start-Up stipulates that companies locate on a campus or within a mile radius of one, the state has allowed special exemptions.

“The state found a pathway for us to do this,” Pietkiewicz said. That pathway entails the Amherst IDA’s leasing from BlackRock of 6,668 square feet of office space at 350 CrossPoint Parkway, then subleasing it back to BlackRock Niagara LLC.

ECC trustees were scheduled to approve the unusual arrangement at their March 23 meeting, but they tabled acting on it after some board members expressed reservations.

“It seems to me we’re being asked to approve a tax break and a relationship with a company that we don’t know anything about,” said trustee Todd P. Hobler. “I’m just a little hesitant to do that.”

Another trustee, Timothy C. Callan, requested more information about BlackRock and BlackRock Niagara and asked why representatives of the companies had not made a presentation to the board. Pietkiewicz said he would provide answers to board members before their next meeting, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. April 12. A vote on the memorandum of understanding is expected at that meeting.