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Asserting that city and state leaders need to “think outside the box” to revive Buffalo’s retail industry, developer Rocco Termini called Tuesday for a sales-tax-free zone downtown to lure Canadian shoppers and entice small new stores to open up in the city’s urban core.

Speaking to a lunchtime gathering of the League of Women Voters, Termini readily acknowledged that “we’re never, ever, ever going to have the kind of retail we once did. We’ll never have the large department stores.”

But there are plenty of buildings with storefront retail space on the first floor all along downtown streets, and a tax-free zone aimed at visitors to Buffalo – not locals – could appeal to the same shoppers who already flood the parking lots at area malls.

“If you go to every mall in the area, what’s there? Canadians. The city has yet to take advantage of our Canadian neighbors,” he said.

Termini, who is known for loft conversions and historic renovations in Buffalo, told the audience of about 70 people that a retail revival is the next step in Buffalo’s urban resurgence. He noted there has already been a surge in housing and restaurants downtown, including three new ones in his Hotel @ The Lafayette.

“I think it’s an important aspect of bringing back downtown,” said Termini, who has proposed his concept to state and local political leaders. “Nothing has worked, so why not try something that might work? People will travel 30 miles to buy gas tax-free at a reservation. People will come downtown if you provide them with tax-free shopping.”

Termini said such an effort would be an example of the kind of public-private partnership that has already driven significant urban revival in Buffalo and that he said is still needed going forward to rescue or restore structures like the Trico Building near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Calling his $42 million Lafayette project the “poster child for public-private partnerships,” he said it would not have gone forward without state and federal historic tax credits, $2 million from the Governor’s Office and additional grants or tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, the city, National Grid and National Fuel Gas Co.

“Without all of the money put into the project, it never would have happened,” he said. “Renovation of historic buildings is very expensive, and the rents in Buffalo are so low. So there’s a gap, and one of the ways you fill that gap is with historic tax credits.”

Termini spoke as part of a panel discussion about the role of public-private partnerships in Buffalo’s recent rebirth and how they can take many forms. Other panelists included David Stebbins, vice president of Buffalo Urban Development Corp.; Thomas Kucharski, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise; and Howard Zemsky, managing partner of Larkin Development Corp., chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and co-chairman of the state’s Western New York Regional Economic Development Council.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com