Erie County can't afford to let the $300 million-plus Amazon megaproject proposed for Grand Island slip through its fingers, County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Thursday.
Poloncarz, in his first extended remarks on the project, told The Buffalo News the planned warehouse and distribution center is one of the biggest developments the county will ever see and said it promises a huge boost to the region's economy.
The developer estimates it would pay $51 million to the town, county and Grand Island School District over the next 15 years, according to a document filed this week.
"I do not want to see this project lost to another part of upstate or, for that matter, another part of the country," Poloncarz said, while confirming Amazon would be the occupant of the Project Olive warehouse.
The five-story, nearly 4-million-square-foot facility – there are few warehouses larger in the world – has divided Grand Island since the developer, Trammell Crow Co. of Texas, filed plans for the project in February. Trammell Crow put the project on "pause" Monday but insisted Tuesday the deal is not dead.
Supporters point to the 1,000 workers Amazon would hire and the millions of dollars in tax revenue it would provide.
Opponents, however, say the project is out of scale for the town, would generate too much traffic on the island and its bridges and the supposed financial benefits aren't worth the price the community would pay to let Amazon build here.
"Every time I have heard TC Buffalo's reps speak," islander Maureen Phillips said during Monday's virtual Town Board meeting, referring to Trammell Crow's limited liability company, "I remember this old expression: Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining."
Poloncarz said Erie County began working with Amazon and Trammell Crow about two years ago on a potential facility and the companies soon indicated interest in building a national distribution center and warehouse here.
The county executive said officials showed Trammell Crow and Amazon representatives several locations in Erie County, including at the former Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna, but the developer decided the 145-acre property at 2780 Long Road best met its needs.
"Grand Island was not our first choice," Poloncarz said, but it appealed to the developer and Amazon because of its size and its proximity to the Interstate 190.
The county executive said he and others involved in the search signed non-disclosure agreements, but he insisted on a provision that allowed officials to disclose the identity of the prospective tenant, Amazon, at a certain point in the negotiations over an incentive package.
Poloncarz and town officials have not revealed what tax breaks Trammell Crow and Amazon are seeking, but an economic analysis produced on behalf of the developer outlines the potential community benefits.
The developer estimates – if the property is assessed at $149.7 million upon the completion of the facility – it would generate $9.6 million for the town, $15.5 million to Erie County and $25.5 million to the school district over a 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, agreement. After 15 years, the property would be taxed at its full value.
In comparison, if the property remains undeveloped it would generate $393,272 in total property taxes over the same 15-year period.
Poloncarz said he knows not everyone is a fan of Amazon, including members of local labor unions who are seeking a hiring commitment from the developer. The developer estimates the facility would cost at least $300 million to build and equip and would directly employ 370 construction workers.
Poloncarz touted the promised $15-per-hour starting wages, which he said are more than the $13-per-hour living wage for a single person in Erie County.
The facility would have an estimated payroll of more than $32 million and it would help fill the void left by the numerous closings of retail stores in the area, Poloncarz said.
"I'm hopeful in the end that this project will get approved," Poloncarz said.
On the island, however, the Project Olive fight rages on.
Michael Huntress, co-owner of the Long Road site, said he just rented a large bucket lift that he put on the property with its arm raised 87 feet in the air – the height of the proposed Amazon facility – and a large American flag hanging from it.
"I'm going to leave it there for a month so that everybody can see how tall the building is," Huntress said.
The coalition that has formed to fight the project said it has collected nearly 1,000 signatures on an anti-Project Olive petition and looks to collect 1,000 more.
“This fight is far from over," co-founder Cathy Rayhill said in a statement.
Grand Island Supervisor John Whitney, who hasn't talked to the developer since Monday, has not said publicly whether he supports the project, even as he is pressed on both sides. He said the Town Board won't vote on the development at its next meeting but could act later this summer.
"I'm going to be hated no matter which way my decision goes," Whitney said.