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Amherst’s James Allen pushed growth till the tide changed

For more than 36 years, no one has been a bigger advocate for promoting growth in Amherst than James J. Allen.

Over the years, that approach helped expand the town’s tax base by $750 million and bring more than 25,000 jobs to Amherst.

But the times have been changing. Gone are the days of no-holds-barred growth under former supervisor “Asphalt Jack” Sharpe. Now, the supervisor’s office is held by Dr. Barry Weinstein, one of the region’s most consistent critics of taxpayer subsidies to businesses.

Even the tenor is changing at the Amherst Industrial Development Agency that Allen ran. Instead of a board that staunchly backed tax breaks for growing businesses, the agency’s directors now are dominated by a new majority that takes a far more skeptical view of incentives.

It came to a head last month, when the agency’s board went against Allen’s recommendation and refused to provide an extra $1.1 million in tax breaks for Iskalo Development’s revamped – and more expensive – renovation of the Lord Amherst hotel. That rejection prompted Iskalo to sue the IDA.

By the time the agency’s executive committee met on April 11, Allen already had decided his time had come. His retirement as the IDA’s executive director took effect the next day.

“I was going to retire by the end of the year, no matter what,” Allen said. “It’s not as sudden as it seems.”

Was the Iskalo project the turning point for Allen?

“It might have been,” Weinstein said. “He was more of an advocate for promoting incentives than some of us.”

Allen will only say that he decided that this was the right time to step aside.

After all, Allen had options. He had turned 66 last August. A report from the Center for Governmental Research just months earlier had cataloged the success the IDA had in turning Amherst into the Buffalo Niagara region’s most robust suburb, much of it fueled by the tax breaks that the agency handed out to 370 companies during Allen’s 36-year tenure.

With the aggressive use of tax breaks, developers built a slew of new office and commercial business parks that were so successful at snagging tenants that it prompted downtown landlords to sue the IDA for using the tax breaks to pirate businesses from neighboring communities. The incentives helped Amherst land big employers, from Ingram Micro and Citigroup to GEICO.

Those breaks combined to reduce the taxable assessed value of those projects by about $120 million in 2014, the report said. But they also contributed to the creation of 25,000 jobs at the companies themselves, along with anywhere from 7,500 to 22,400 spin-off jobs from companies that do business with the firms receiving IDA subsidies.

“We accomplished our goals,” Allen said.

Like a veteran athlete who senses when their career is coming to an end, Allen also sensed that his time was up, too, said Edward Stachura, a longtime IDA board member and one of Allen’s staunchest allies. He could have hung on until the end of the year, but why would he want his final months tinged with frustration as he dealt with an IDA board that no longer shared his view that the aggressive use of tax breaks are a powerful tool to promote economic development?

“It’s making it more difficult to do the kind of things we do,” Allen said.

Of course, the hard-to-answer question with tax breaks is whether projects would have happened even if a business didn’t get incentives. Incentives that convince businesses to invest here, as opposed to someplace else, are a good thing. So are incentives that help convince a company to go ahead with a project they’re not sure makes economic sense. But to give handouts to projects that were going to happen anyway is corporate welfare that only serves to drive up the tax bills of everyone else.

In Amherst, that’s a $120 million question.

And let’s not forget: Businesses aren’t the only ones who get property tax breaks. Homeowners who are senior citizens get them. So do veterans. The state’s STAR program gives most homeowners a break on their school taxes.

Without a doubt, the agency’s new board majority is more skeptical of tax breaks for businesses. They wonder if projects that developers swear would go forward only if they receive tax breaks really would happen without them. Weinstein notes that a senior citizens housing complex on Maple Road that was turned down by the IDA when it sought tax breaks, was built anyway. Others note that the lack of tax breaks forced the project’s developers to concentrate on more upscale residents, instead.

Amherst, which for decades rarely met a project that the town fathers didn’t like, suddenly is taking a harder look at development. It’s not anti-development, by any means, but the tide most certainly has turned from the build-it and pave-it days of old.

“It’s an interesting time in the Town of Amherst,” said Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa.

“For the first time in a long time, the Town Board has flipped, and people need to understand that, when that happens, things change,” Kulpa said. “Over time, the business community will adjust to the changes in the Amherst landscape.”