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James Allen retires after a career that dramatically changed Amherst

Make no mistake, James J. Allen was a major reason that the Town of Amherst became the development powerhouse it is today.

In his 36 years as executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, Allen took on the enormous task of helping develop the town, overseeing the agency that grants tax breaks to construction projects.

It would be putting it mildly to call this a difficult job, one fraught with developers on one end wanting all the tax breaks they can get and on the other end those opposing what they saw as overdevelopment or welfare for developers.

Allen’s shop has been the target of withering criticism, including some from this page. Back in the 1990s, the town IDA drew well-deserved blame for poaching businesses from nearby towns or the city by offering tax incentives that could not be matched in neighboring areas.

Allen weathered the storms and made some adjustments, as he did when he became co-director of the Erie County IDA with Buffalo Niagara Enterprise President Thomas Kucharski. The county IDA and the five suburban IDAs managed to settle on a common policy governing tax breaks. As The News’ David Robinson wrote in a November column, the common policy largely worked. Until, as might be expected with six agencies fighting over a small economic pie, it didn’t.

The Erie County IDA toughened its clawback provisions, changed its rules on senior housing and instituted a pay equity policy, to the dismay of the suburban IDAs.

While that was happening, the pro-development tide was shifting in Amherst. Allen and the chairman of the Amherst IDA have described his retirement as voluntary, but it comes at a time when the composition of the board has changed. Members have taken harder looks at whether to grant tax breaks.

This is not a bad thing, given the history of tax breaks for projects of questionable suitability or ones that would have been built without the incentives.

A report issued last November from the Center for Governmental Research and commissioned by the IDA showed that 370 companies had received IDA tax breaks since 1979. That helped increase the town’s tax base by about $570 million, while creating 25,600 jobs paying, on average, nearly 50 percent more than the typical job in the region.

The retiring IDA chief said: “I’ve accomplished just about all the goals I’ve needed to accomplish.” His imprint on Amherst will be felt for decades.