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Amherst tables decision on hotel at Northtown Center

Are there plenty of hotels serving visitors to the Northtown Center in Amherst?

Or not enough?

That was the central question before the Amherst Town Board on Monday -- as debate continued on whether to rezone three acres at the ice rink complex so a developer can build a four-story, 105-room Hampton by Hilton hotel.

Michele Marconi, the first of six speakers during a public hearing, said a "quick Google search" reveals dozens of hotels in close proximity and a short driving distance from the complex, which frequently hosts regional and national hockey tournaments.

"There is clearly no lack of hotel capacity in this area," she said.

But the proposal also has supporters, particularly in the ice hockey community.

Norm Page, sled hockey representative to USA Hockey and the only speaker in favor of the project, told the Town Board a hotel at Northtown Center would be convenient for skaters with disabilities who are using one of the center's three adaptive rinks.

"To have this hotel gives us the access these kids deserve," he said.

The Town Board unanimously agreed to hold off on making a decision until Oct. 30.

Earlier, the board heard from Mary-Diana Pouli, director of the town's parks and recreation department, and Eric Guzdek, Northtown Center's general manager, who also told the board the hotel would maximize convenience for all visitors, but particularly those with disabilities.

"Being able to have those athletes right on site is another feather in our cap," Pouli said.

The parcel at 1615 Amherst Manor Drive, near the University at Buffalo's North Campus, would change from recreation conservation to general business zoning to make way for the hotel.

Uniland Development Co. would build and operate the $13 million hotel and make annual land-lease payments to the town. The amount of that payment is still under negotiation, although $50,000 is the figure officials cited.

Amherst would lose three acres of green space, but gain as parkland 26.6 acres between North French and Casey roads.

The Planning Board in August recommended denying the rezoning, saying the town already had too many hotels in that area and it should preserve its recreational space.

But Uniland, in correspondence to town officials last week, countered that there is plenty of market demand to support a hotel at the site, which also includes the Audubon Recreation Complex.

"The proposed Hampton by Hilton will directly support the operations of the complex by enhancing the facility's competitiveness to attract hockey and softball tournaments," Kellena L.W. Kane, a senior development manager at Uniland, wrote Oct. 5.

The Northtown Center hotel would replace one planned by Uniland nearby at the University Corporate Center, she noted.

In addition, two obsolete mid-range hotels in the area recently closed taking 319 rooms off the market, Kane said.

Robert A. Schell, president of Pyramid Brokerage Company and a hockey tournament director, wrote to town officials that when a regional or national event is hosted at Northtown, teams sometimes have to stay in Cheektowaga, West Seneca or Buffalo "because of a lack of rooms in Amherst."

Marconi, who led opposition to the Hyatt hotel on Main Street in 2012, said she was unconvinced of a need for a hotel on town-owned land.

"This is neither a good idea, nor a good deal," she said. "It's neither sensible nor prudent. Amherst has sufficient acreage already zoned for commercial uses."

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