The Erie County Industrial Development Agency took a step in the right direction the other day by launching a six-month countywide review of the policies that determine whether redevelopment projects merit taxpayer incentives.
The move should help better define and differentiate between a redevelopment project and one that involves true industrial development.
But it likely won’t end the controversy surrounding how the five suburban IDAs choose to dole out incentives. Nor will it produce the magic formula for consolidating the six IDAs in Erie County. In recent years, the suburban agencies have given questionable tax breaks to some businesses.
One of the most egregious came from the Amherst IDA, which provided about $585,000 in tax breaks to Premier Wine and Spirits to help underwrite its move from Delaware Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda to Maple Road in Amherst. Only 10 new jobs were created. And that $585,000 came from all county taxpayers, not just those in Amherst, meaning Tonawanda residents helped fund the pilfering of Premier.
Unfortunately, there is little agreement among the IDAs on the right and wrong of funding projects that go beyond the traditional industrial development for which all the agencies were initially created. Traditional means a project that has nothing to do with the type of building or where it is located, or the type of site. It is all about creating or keeping good jobs. Too many tax breaks these days go for restaurants, stores and medical offices with the goal of improving a neighborhood.
There has been a frame of reference for industrial development, but there hasn’t been a frame for what are now being called “redevelopment projects,” or “community development projects,” which are totally unlike industrial development. It doesn’t matter so much what happens at the site. Rather, the point is to preserve or improve buildings and clean up sites to improve a particular neighborhood.
That multifaceted utilization applied to projects by the suburban agencies has led to accusations of irresponsible economic development because many of the tax breaks granted in recent years have gone to those community development, or redevelopment, projects.
The ECIDA correctly concluded that it can head off questions by having in place a common frame of reference to be followed with regard to community development projects.
In communities around the country, there is a belief that the more a community embraces “placemaking,” or the many-faceted quality of the place, the stronger it will be. The path the ECIDA is going down is to take the current policies that have been at question– adaptive reuse and “enhancement zones” – and create a redevelopment policy with logical tiers of incentives.
The ECIDA has agreed that redevelopment is a goal that should be pursued, and agreed to start a collaborative process to come up with a specific policy for those tiered incentives – all in six months. The suburban industrial development agencies should follow suit.