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James J. Allen, former IDA head who 'put Amherst on the map,' dead at 68

When James J. Allen took over as the head of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency in 1979, the University at Buffalo North Campus was less than one decade old and the town was a bedroom community that was still waking up.

By the time Allen stepped down in 2016 after 37 years as the agency's executive director, Amherst had become a powerful economic engine in the region's suburbs. Office parks, shopping centers and new housing had sprouted up.

Allen, who played a key role as the Amherst IDA granted tax incentives to projects that produced tens of thousands of jobs and generated millions of dollars in investments, died Tuesday morning in his East Amherst home.

He was 68 and had suffered from congestive heart failure in recent years, but his death was unexpected, friends and family said.

"In my opinion, he put Amherst on the map," said Paul Leone, a colleague of Allen's at the Erie County IDA and a former consultant to the Amherst IDA.

The Amherst IDA under Allen acted more boldly than other area IDAs in handing out tax breaks to commercial and industrial projects, raising the ire of some other municipalities.

But Allen was an outspoken advocate for growth, and supported granting incentives when the projects met qualifying standards.

A report issued in November 2015 by Rochester's Center for Governmental Research and commissioned by the IDA showed that 370 companies had received IDA tax breaks since 1979, when Allen became the IDA's top executive. 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.

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. worked with the Amherst IDA on a number of large office and housing projects during Allen's tenure, including Centerpointe Corporate Park, Village Park Business Center and its Audubon properties.

“Jim’s leadership in the AIDA was instrumental in the diverse development of Amherst, and in making it the thriving municipality it is today," said Paul F. Ciminelli, president and CEO of the company.

Colleagues and business associates praised Allen as dogged in arguing for what he thought was best for the town – and the region – and deeply knowledgeable about how to leverage public sector financing to promote development.

"He absolutely did not pirate business away from other communities. But he did find a way to get projects done," said Colleen DiPirro, a friend and the longtime CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce. "He was tenacious in sticking to his beliefs."

The Amherst IDA board voted in April 2016 to pay Allen for an extra eight months after he retired, a move that generated some criticism from town officials after it was revealed this month by The Buffalo News.

Amherst Town Board candidate criticizes 'golden parachute' payment to former IDA head

At the time of his retirement from the Amherst IDA last year, Allen was one of the longest-tenured IDA directors in the state.

Prior to taking over as head of the Amherst IDA, Allen for six years served as president of the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce. From 2001 to 2003 he served as co-director of the Erie County IDA in addition to fulfilling his Amherst duties.

Allen's successor as Amherst IDA executive director, David S. Mingoia, was a classmate of Allen's in the master's program at UB. He praised Allen for seeing the need to transition from an industrial- to a knowledge-based economy well before others.

"He was always looking for what's next in the marketplace," Mingoia said.

It was later in life that Allen went back to school part-time to earn a master's degree in urban planning from UB. One of his professors was Ernest Sternberg, who recalled being so impressed that he recommended Allen join the UB faculty as an instructor.

"He was a man of very high integrity and superbly knowledgeable about the field of economic development. He knew it inside out," said Sternberg, now the chair of UB's department of urban and regional planning. Allen started teaching in 1999, the same year he earned his degree.

One of Allen's students at UB was Brian J. Kulpa, now the Williamsville mayor, who recalled him as a charismatic and lively teacher.

After Kulpa joined the Village Board, Kulpa said he enjoyed the give-and-take with Allen on discussions of potential development projects in Williamsville.

"If I was in a position, he would try very hard to move me over to his position. It didn't always happen," Kulpa said.

A native of the West Side of Rochester, Allen earned his bachelor's degree from St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester.

If economic development was Allen's job, drum corps and marching band were his passion.

Allen, a skilled trumpet player, served as the assistant director of the UB marching band from 2000 to 2013. He also worked with the school's pep band, independently with young performers in drum and bugle corps, and he consulted with high schools.

Jim Mauck, the director of UB's Thunder of the East marching band, said Allen had a gift for conducting, drilling, and teaching the students where they should go and what they should do on the field.

"This man, I would say, probably had a greater impact in the drum corps/music community than he did at the IDA," Mauck said. "He did it far longer. There's thousands of people impacted by him in a very positive way."

Allen, whose musical interests date back to his youth, was inducted into the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 2011 for his long service as a coach and judge.

Allen also enjoyed reading, shopping and cheering for the New York Yankees. He went to spring training this past spring to see the team in Tampa, Fla., according to his daughter, Lindsay Allen.

Allen met his wife of 48 years, the former Linda Viele, when he was 15 and she was 16 through a drum and bugle corps program in Batavia, Lindsay Allen said.

Additional survivors include another daughter, Jamie Allen-Powers; his son, Michael; his brothers, Tom and Donny, who also are active in drum corps; and his sisters, Karen McCoy and Nancy Fiorino.

Funeral plans are incomplete.

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