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Allen retires as head of Amherst IDA

James J. Allen, who played a key role in Amherst developing into the Buffalo Niagara region’s most economically robust suburb, announced Friday that he has retired as head of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency at time when town sentiment has turned against rapid, no-holds-barred development.

Allen oversaw the agency that grants tax breaks to construction projects for the past 36 years, an era when the growing suburb mushroomed into a residential, office and light-industrial colossus.

His retirement, which both he and the IDA’s chairman described as voluntary, came as the make-up of the agency’s board has shifted, with directors who tend to take a hard-line view of granting tax breaks gaining more sway.

“It’s time,” Allen, 66, said in an interview on Friday. “I’ve given it some thought for six months or so. I was thinking maybe at the end of the year, but it’s time.”

Allen took the reins at the IDA seven years after the University at Buffalo North Campus opened, which created a need for housing and businesses to serve the growing campus.

During his tenure, the IDA generally followed a strategy of offering tax breaks for new commercial and industrial projects, in some cases more aggressively than other IDAs within Erie County. Allen was an outspoken advocate for growth, and did not back away from advocating tax breaks for projects that fit within the qualifying standards.

That sometimes put the Amherst IDA at odds with the Erie County IDA over its support for hotels and other types of projects. More than a decade ago, the Amherst IDA also was at the center of a controversy over whether new office parks in Amherst, backed by IDA tax breaks, were pirating businesses from other parts of the county, especially downtown.

A report issued last November from the Center for Governmental Research commissioned by the agency showed that the 370 companies receiving IDA tax breaks since 1979 have helped increase the town’s tax base by roughly $570 million, while creating 25,600 jobs that pay, on average, nearly 50 percent more than the typical job in the Buffalo Niagara region.

“I’ve accomplished just about all the goals I’ve needed to accomplish,” Allen said.

His departure comes as the Amherst Town Board has become more hesitant to embrace development as readily as in the past.

Amherst Supervisor Dr. Barry Weinstein, who has been an advocate for more restraint by IDAs in granting tax breaks, said Allen’s retirement could herald a new direction for the agency.

“The IDA might be more selective in who they want to subsidize,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein acknowledged the role that Allen and the IDA’s tax incentives played in spurring that growth.

“His legacy is one of success,” Weinstein said. “He’s been the driving force in the successful development of Amherst.”

Lately, though, the agency’s approach to development has become less aggressive as the composition of its board has changed, said Steven Sanders, an IDA board member who also sits on the Amherst Town Board.

“The Amherst IDA is moving in a slightly new direction,” Sanders said.

“I believe we will still be promoting economic development. I believe we will still be promoting new projects,” he said. “I believe there may be more due diligence with projects.”

David Mingoia, the IDA’s deputy director, was named interim director of the agency on Friday.

Board member Michael R. Szukala said the agency plans to conduct “an extensive and comprehensive search” over the next several months for a new executive director.

“I know Jim was frustrated with a lot of things that were going on,” said Edward Stachura, an IDA board member and one of Allen’s longtime supporters.

“He retired – honestly,” Stachura said. “Maybe there was a little push, but he retired honestly. You know when it’s time.”

Carlton N. Brock Jr., who took over this year as the IDA’s chairman, declined to elaborate on Allen’s retirement.

“Jim decided he wanted to retire,” Brock said. “Outside of that, we don’t have any comment.”

Michelle F. Marconi, the IDA’s vice chairman and one of Allen’s critics on the board, said she had no comment.

The IDA last month went against Allen’s recommendation and turned down Iskalo Development’s request for an additional $1.1 million in tax breaks for an expanded renovation of the Lord Amherst hotel on Main Street. As a result of that vote, Iskalo is suing the IDA.