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Monday, June 3, 2013 at 11:05 pm

GCEDC CEO out of the spotlight during ceremony for big yogurt plant he helped put on the map

Throughout the 90-minute opening ceremony for the new Muller Quaker Dairy Plant in the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park, Steve Hyde sat in the second row and smiled.

Not one speaker -- and there were five of them -- mentioned Hyde by name. There was no official recognition of his work to bring this day about.

Still, he smiled.

You couldn't help but think of a proud father watching his son or daughter graduate.

Asked how he felt afterward, Hyde, as he usually does when posed such questions, demurred and praised others.

"It’s a great day for everybody in the community," Hyde said. "This was a dream of mine and a lot of other partners. It’s 10 years in the making and this is just phase one."

Hyde has his critics. Genesee County Economic Development Center, the organization he runs, has its skeptics. But the Muller Quaker plant is a big deal, especially for a county of only 57,000 people that hasn't had a big factory opening in more than five decades.

PepsiCo and Theo Muller Group invested $200 million in the facility and that dollar figure doesn't count product development, designs for new trade-secret machinery to create the Greek-style yogurt, new software to run the plant and the planning that goes into bringing a new product to market.

Ken Adams, president of Empire State Development, indicated he was a little bit awed by the idea of a global powerhouse like Pepsi and a German-based company like Theo Muller coming to Upstate New York.

"Having PepsiCo here, having Muller here, is like a global seal of approval for this park and its infrastructure," Adams said.

And he gives a lot of the credit for making it happen to Hyde.

"Steve Hyde as far as I’m concerned, he really put the agri-business park, this particular location, on the map at a statewide level," Adams said. "Steve is always in Albany working very closely with the legislators from the area, senate and assembly, working very close with the governor’s office.

"I’ve told this to him, so I'll say it to you," Adams added, "Steve Hyde is a forceful, well respected advocate for investment and economic development here in Batavia. He really put the site on the map and then he also pulls everybody together at the local and state level to make sure a project like this actually goes smoothly. That’s important for the company, for the investors, that there are no hiccups along the way."

A critical factor with Muller Quaker -- called Project Wave during the planning process -- was the speed at which all of the necessary permits could be secured. A lot of credit goes to Town of Batavia and Genesee County officials, but the GCEDC staff laid the ground work to have a shovel-ready site and push the paperwork through the process.

In his speech today, Theo Muller praised the local authorities who got approval for the plant so quickly.

"It would be unimaginable in Germany," he said with a wink. "In Germany that would have taken at the very least three years. You have to send a whole case of yogurt to them over there to get anything done."

Sen. Charles Schummer called the ag park a great idea of local leaders and said when GCEDC came to him for help, he was happy to jump in and secure federal grants for infrastructure.

"There is no better way to strengthen our dairy industry and create jobs than to build a park like this, which has helped attract this great company," Schumer said.

Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who helped with the state legislative process on the project, noted that in any big project like this, stretching, as it does, across the boundaries of local, state and federal responsibilities, there are a lot of people who deserve credit for bringing it together, but Hyde certainly provided critical leadership.

"This is a big deal," Hawley said. "It's one of the largest plants in the country. We need jobs. I hear about it every day from constituents."

It takes a lot of work, Hawley said, to untangle the regulations that can hold up a business and a lot of people had a hand in bringing it together.

"A lot of the credit goes to Steve, but it's a team effort," Hawley said.

Danny Wegman, CEO of Wegmans and president of the Finger Lakes Economic Development Council, is also a Steve Hyde fan. He believes Hyde will pull off the gargantuan task of developing WNY STAMP, the proposed 1,200-acre, high-tech manufacturing park in Alabama that could employ 9,300 people some day.

It's an audacious project, but Wegman said when there are people passionate about projects, they can make things happen.

"Steve is very excited about this," Wegman said last week during the governor's visit to Genesee Community College. "There are a lot of confidential things that can't be shared, but I feel confident that if somebody I believe in is excited about it, the chances of it happening are pretty good."

The success of the ag park only enhances the chance's of success with STAMP, Adams said.

"We’re very hopeful," Adams said. "It’s a globally competitive industry. The opportunity is at STAMP. It’s a great site. It’s much bigger than this site, the agri-business park, but Steve has done a good job at lining up all of the vital ingredients for that site -- power, water, obviously the land, permitting, all the things you need to really be shovel-ready when the right business comes along. He’s the chief marketer. He’s going to Albany tomorrow. He’s on it and he works very closely my colleagues at ESD on marketing STAMP, so we have our fingers crossed."

Hyde said it's all about building on the natural assets of Batavia and Genesee County and showing that can be done with the ag park will translate into confidence for other projects, such as STAMP.

"It helps build credibility in the eyes of some of the folks in the leadership roles in the state that we know how to do this here at the local level," Hyde said. "This (agriculture) is an industry where the regional assets were in great demand and we could make an impact, and when you look at the regional assets in the nano stuff in our region we’ve got the same situation developing."

Monday, June 3, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Officials optimistic about yogurt and Genesee County with opening of Muller Quaker plant

According to Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, Batavians owe a big thank you to Danny Wegman.

No, not for promising one of his unriviled grocery stores to Genesee County, but for steering her attention toward yogurt and the need to produce it in Western New York.

"When I visited Danny in his flagship store in Rochester, Danny said to me, ‘Indra, you should get into the yogurt business because it’s growing extremely rapidly and if you do, the plant has to be located right around here in Upstate New York,' " Nooryi said. "I listened to Danny  because Danny is one of the most respected thinkers in the industry, and, Danny, we delivered on the promise.”

Wegman stood at the back of a tent crowded with local and state dignitaries and smiled broadly.

Last week, Wegman told The Batavian that it might take build out of the STAMP project in Alabama to bring a Wegmans to Batavia. Today, Wegman (top inset photo) had a slightly different take.

Coming out from a tour of the new Muller Quaker Dairy plant, he said, "more projects like this and we'll be here."

The dairy plant -- which will manufacture two brands of Greek-style yogurt, Muller FrutUp and Muller Corner -- officially opened today.

To start, it operates three production lines, employs 180 people in a 350,000-square-foot facility that could one day accommodate as many as 16 production lines.

Already, the plant produces 120,000 cups of yogurt per hour.

Sen. Charles Schumer announced during opening ceremonies that Muller Quaker has reached an agreement with the Upstate Milk Cooperative to source all of its milk from WNY dairy farmers.

The OA-TK-A plant in Batavia will produce the milk protein that Muller Quaker uses in its yogurt production (rather than strain milk as done in traditional Greek yogurt production, Muller Quaker adds protein to give its yogurt a similar rich, silky texture).

"This is an amazing shot in the arm for our economy here in Western New York and I am pledged to continue to do whatever I can do to make this the most successful venture in Western New York," Schumer said.

The project brings together two companies -- the worldwide giant in the food and beverage industry, PepsiCo, and a much smaller, but well respected, dairy company from Germany, the Theo Muller Group.

Stephan Muller, who moved to the United States to assume the reins of the new company, spoke about the entrepreneurial spirit, the risk taking of the $200 million investment by the two companies.

Muller represents the fifth generation of Mullers in the dairy business.

His father, Theo Muller, said through a translator, that the company made previous attempts to break into the U.S. market.

Stephen Muller described his father as a bit of a technophobe who never used a computer and then he got an iPhone just after Stephen Muller arrived in the U.S.

"He sent me a text message," Muller said. "I think it was his first one or one of his first ones. He said, ’520 years ago Christopher Columbus started his journey west with just three ships. Now you are our Columbus. Capital, excellent knowledge now are your ships, and one thing one cannot buy, the iron will to have success."

Nooyi (second inset photo) believes the product will be successful

PepsiCo already has a track record of success of developing a balanced portfolio of food and beverage products that she described as "fun for you, good for you and better for you."

"PepsiCo is becoming a real force in the good-for-you space," Nooyi said. "We have the best go-to-market systems and superior marketing, combined with Muller’s leadership in phenomenal dairy products, I think we’re going to become a real force in the dairy business in North America."

The success in just getting the plant open bodes well for Batavia, Schumer said. With 90 acres of available space at the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park, there will likely be more jobs coming to town.

"We could employ as many as 1,200 more people when the food processors learn of the transportation advantages, the food production advatnages and just the work force advantages that we have here in this area," Schumer said.  "Food processors from around the world are learning what we have to offer."

Ken Adams, president of Empire State Development, said the success of today's opening is something that will attract more investment in the park, especially in supply chain support for Muller.

"It’s a very powerful confirmation of this facility, the agri-business park as a center for international investment," Adams said. "One thing I’m struck with at this ceremony is you’ve got a global leader like PepsiCo partnering wth Muller and obviously Quaker, the PepsiCo brand, coming together right here in Batavia. The project confirms Batavia, Genesee County’s position, certainly in the Northeast if not North America, as a center of the yogurt universe."

To purchase prints of these photos, click here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm

During stopover in Batavia, DiNapoli says IDAs should not broadly interpret law on tax breaks for retail

The state law meant to curtail tax breaks by IDAs for retail developments should be defined as narrowly as possible, according to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

If IDAs broadly interpret the law and push through subsidies for projects that should be outside its scope, then reforms may be necessary, DiNapoli said.

"They should certainly interpret it as narrowly as possible," DiNapoli said. "Having not been a Legislator at the time, I can't overly interpret on their behalf the intent. But what I think we'll do with IDAs that are too broadly interpreting that exception is, we'll make recommendations and work with legislators to tighten up that definition, if that seems necessary to curtail the use of IDA incentives for retail."

DiNapoli was in Batavia this afternoon for a meet-and-greet fundraiser hosted by the Genesee County Democrats at Larry's Steakhouse.

Throughout a six-minute conversation with The Batavian, DiNapoli made it clear he doesn't believe IDAs should be, as a general rule, handing out tax incentives to retail projects.

Asked whether retail chains really wouldn't come to a community unless they get tax breaks, DiNapoli said "that probably varies from community to community," but went on to explain the problem, as he sees it, with such IDA incentives.

"The kind of retail projects we've seen in recent years are the kind of projects that in the long term do not promote the kind of job creation and economic development that would really make a lasting difference in a community," DiNapoli said.

"I continue to have very healthy skepticism of the value of such incentives. As we always point out, there is a cost to the communities that isn't fully realized, so it underscores that the kinds of economic development (undertaken) should be of greater significance, more long lasting, have a transformational impact, and retail doesn't really provide that."

In early May, the Genesee County Economic Development Center Board approved $1.8 million in tax incentives for COR Development to remodel the vacant space at Batavia Towne Center formerly occupied by Lowe's Home Improvement.

The package includes a reduction in property taxes and forgiveness of state and local sales taxes on building material and store fixtures.

The state law prohibits IDAs from giving away state sales tax money unless certain findings are made (there is no law that prohibits other tax breaks for retail projects). The potential findings are that the project is in a highly distressed area, is a tourist destination or will provide goods and services not readily available to area residents.

It was on the last exception that the GCEDC board based its decision on. There was no evidence presented at any public meeting to substantiate the finding.

The only known tenant at the time of the vote was Dick's Sporting Goods.

Genesee County has five small retail outlets that sell sporting goods, four of which are locally owned.

Among the arguments put forward by GCEDC CEO Steve Hyde in support of tax breaks for COR is that he needs that Lowe's space filled in order to attract major corporations to projects such as WNY Stamp and the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park.

"I'm not sure I buy that argument," DiNapoli said. "I'm not in a position to judge that, but that argument is a stretch."

DiNapoli acknowledged that interpretation of the law is largely left up to the local IDAs.

"Even the report we put out every year (on IDAs in NYS), even that is limited by the fact that it's self-reported information," DiNapoli said. "As people have pointed out, IDAs, as well as other authorities in New York, tend to operate with a level of autonomy that I think doesn't provide a maximum opportunity for accountability.

"As you point out," he added, "there are certain exceptions and there certainly there isn't any easy way to clamp down on an IDA that might be too generous in interpreting that exception."

Friday, May 31, 2013 at 9:28 am

Cuomo did not criticize tax breaks for COR Development

During the "gaggle" (that's what reporters call it) with Gov. Andrew Cuomo following his speech at GCC yesterday, I asked him specifically about Genesee County Economic Development Center providing tax incentives to the retail project at Batavia Towne Center.

In these mini-press conferences, reporters are only given enough time to ask a few questions and it's difficult to ask follow-up questions, so I fumbled through my question (which really should have been a two- or three-parter), trying to cram in as much information into a short time as possible (and it was still a pretty long-winded question).

Another media outlet has reported that Cuomo was critical of the retail tax subsidies given to COR. The quote used: “It wasn’t the smartest investment of money."

The quote, in my view, is being taken out of context.

Here's Cuomo's full response to my question:

Your case is fact specific and I would have to look at the actual facts to see what they did. We had proposed IDA reforms. I believe there are economies that I can find there and I believe there are incidents where you can find it wasn't the smartest investment of money. That's why, that's one of the reasons I like the approach we're talking about here today. It's simple. It's clean. It doesn't have a lot of bureaucratic red tape. It's very easy to administer. Very few government officials required to administer it. So I think it's preferable to a lot of things we've done in the past.

Included in Cuomo's budget was a reenacted law meant to curtail IDAs providing tax breaks to retail projects. I asked Cuomo what the intent of that law was. He said, "Just improve the process and address the kind of abuses you've been talking about." He then said thank you and turned and left.

I didn't report any of this because I didn't find it particularly newsworthy. He couldn't address the specific local issue (hardly surprising, but I had to ask) and his answer to the more general "intent" question referenced my own question, which by his own admission, he didn't know much about. That seemed like a kind of circular logic that didn't make a lot of sense.

However, given that another media outlet used the quote, and though I don't mean to be critical of a fellow reporter, I feel obliged to put the quote in context.

Thursday, May 30, 2013 at 9:16 pm

Cuomo pitches 'tax free' at GCC, a campus that might be well suited for the program

post by Howard Owens in business, GCC, GCEDC, New York Tax Free, taxes

Genesee Community College sits high on a hill surrounded by a lot of open space.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited GCC today to promote his "New York Tax Free" proposal, which would allow SUNY campuses such as GCC to play host to new businesses or businesses that are creating new jobs.

Up to 200,000 square feet of land around a SUNY campus could also be used for the 100-percent-tax-free zone.

All that open space around GCC, then, might also be described as opportunity.

"That was the vision 10 years ago that we started developing with GCC and Dr. Steiner and now Dr. Sunser," said Steve Hyde, CEO of GCEDC. The agency now has offices across the street from the college campus in what's known as the Upstate Med-Tech Center. "I think we're really well positioned to rock and roll together and really make a difference here."

Cuomo is clearly passionate about his proposal.  Whatever its critics might have to say about it, Cuomo has an answer and at times during his speech and afterward made his points with the fervor of an evangelist for Upstate New York.

Cuomo:

Nobody ever said (speaking of those who have left New York), I didn’t like New York or I didn’t like Upstate New York. Nobody.

We did this (mess up the state and cause 50 years of decline) to ourselves. We did this to ourselves because this state has every asset imaginable.

I spent eight years in the Clinton Administration. I worked in every state in this nation, literally, dozens and dozens of times. I know everything else that’s out there. I’ve seen the best that every state has. No state has to offer what we have to offer in New York. No state has our combination of talents.

Our geography, our diversity, our history, the most beautiful natural resources, mountain ranges, the greatest cities, beaches, we have it all, all in one state – the best of everything with the distillation of the best of America -- in one state called New York.

So it’s not that that they're beating us. We're beating us. We created these conditions. We can reverse these conditions. Reduce the taxes. Make this state as competitive as any state out there from a tax point of view.

"NY Tax Free" would turn SUNY campuses into zones with no state or local taxes of any kind for businesses based on the campuses (or in the 200K zone), and a company's employees, for up to 10 years.

The businesses would have to match the educational mission of the host campus, working in industries of related fields of study.

Cuomo's dream is clearly to incubate the next Apple or Google.

"If you look at the places that are creating jobs, it's the higher education institutions that are doing research and development. It's the 28-year-old who develops the new chip or the new iPhone of the new application, but the schools are actually creating the jobs."

These sorts of companies are getting founded on NY campuses now, Cuomo said, but 75 percent of them leave New York within the first year, taken either by founders or investors to lower tax states such as Florida or Texas.

Yes, the proposal is big and bold, Cuomo said. No other state in the nation has ever dared to take on such an audacious project, but New York does big and bold well, Cuomo said (while a picture of the Erie Canal was projected on the screen behind him).

Big problems, he said, require big solutions.

"People have been leaving," Cuomo said. "Jobs have been leaving. At the same time, we have more and more government and the costs of governing are going up and up while there are fewer and fewer people to pay for the increasing cost of government, which makes taxes higher, making the tax burden higher, which causes more people to leave. That's the dynamic and the longer the dynamic continues, the worst it gets."

Upstate, especially, needs the help, Cuomo said, and with 55 of the 64 SUNY campuses located in Upstate, and 95 percent of Upstate residents living within 30 miles of a SUNY campus, this proposal makes a lot of sense.

In the past several years, there has been only a 5-percent increase in new jobs in Upstate, while New York City has grown jobs at a clip of 16 percent. The 5-percent growth rate doesn't even keep up with the national average.

The proposal would create 120 million square feet of entrepreneurial space in Upstate, Cuomo said, which is more commercial space than in San Francisco and Philadelphia combined, and more than Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse combined.

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Cuomo said the major criticism he's heard of the proposal is that taxes should be lowered to zero for everyone.

"It's the right idea to have zero taxes across the board," Cuomo said, "but there's some problems with the details."

If the proposal seems unfair, Cuomo argued that the current tax system is unfair.

"There is not a level playing field in the current tax code," Cuomo said. "The more you make, the more you pay. Some businesses get tax breaks that others don't. We have tax breaks for manufacturing. Why? Because we decided we want manufacturing businesses here. We have tax breaks for the film business ... because we want to produce movies here. It's a falsity that the tax code is equal, but for this. The tax code is anything but equal."

He also argued that residents around SUNY campuses will benefit from the job creation, with employees of these companies buying groceries, cars and houses locally.

"There will be economic activity in your community and that will be a good thing for you," Cuomo said.

He added, "We can't sustain what's going on now in Upstate New York. We cannot sustain the population decline. Nobody moving in. Everybody moving out. Fewer and fewer people paying the cost of a growing government.  We cannot continue the trajectory we've been on."

Friday, May 24, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Q&A with Steve Hyde on COR Development incentives

Earlier this week, we e-mailed 10 questions to Steve Hyde about the approval of the COR Development Project. Below are the questions and his responses verbatum.

Q. According to the best available information, at the time the GCEDC board passed the resolution finding that COR's project would provide goods and services not readily available, only one of the proposed tenants was known and two others were in negotiations. How can such a finding be made without a certainty as to the exact tenants? What if COR were to change the tenants to include, say, a liquor store and/or a jewelry store (two business categories well represented in Batavia)?

A. We cannot comment on private negotiations between a developer and prospective tenants.  Like every project that is presented to our board, we have to rely on the information provided to us by the applicant which included a confidential disclosure of not only the known Dick’s project but two additional tenants as well. If the tenants that ultimately reach an agreement with the developer fail to fulfill the new criteria as defined by state law, we would ask our legal counsel for an opinion as to whether the applicant is living up to their end of the agreement and initiate appropriate claw backs. We are confident that COR will fulfill their obligations as they are a reputable developer.

Q. GCEDC has asserted that the COR project is bringing in retail with goods and services not readily available in Genesee County, but there's never been any specific information from GCEDC to substantiate this claim. What exactly is it about the known COR tenants that provides goods and services not readily available in Genesee County? Beyond the assertion, what are the facts to back up the assertion?

A. Again, we are relying on information provided by the applicant that the tenants both know and where private negotiations are occurring will provide goods and services that are not readily available in our community. We confident that COR will fulfill their commitments as it pertains to the GCEDC board’s finding which allows for GCEDC participation in the project under the retail exception as a part of the new state law.

Q. Does GCEDC have any obligation to provide mitigation for the tax breaks given to COR to the existing retailers, be they an independent business such as Batavia Marine or long-standing national chains such as Kmart (which also sells sporting goods)?

A. Any business in the community can submit an application for assistance to our agency and if they fulfill criteria such as the creation of new jobs and investment then they may be eligible for assistance. Our goal is to help businesses create jobs and bring new investment to our community and we stand ready to do everything we can to do that. We encourage businesses to learn more about the incentives provided by our agency. Information about these incentives as well as an application for assistance are available on our Web site at www.gcedc.com.

Q. Calculating from COR's own sales tax estimates, their tenants will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $26 million in annual sales. On what basis are we to believe that Batavia is a marginal market in need of tax incentives in order to attract these retail businesses? The figures appear to be right in line with Dick's per store gross sales average, which means they should be able to project $500,000 in net annual profit. At that kind of return, do these retail stores really need tax breaks in order to come to Batavia? Aren't the things that make Batavia an attractive place to do business -- centrally located in a large rural area, Thruway proximity, promising economic growth -- sufficient for retail without tax breaks, and if it not, what will keep these business in town when the subsidies run out?

A. The fact that we do not have large retailers like Dick’s indicates that Batavia is a marginal market, however as we grow our economy through projects like Alpina and Muller Quaker and longer term STAMP, we will become a destination market. The fact remains, the developer applied for tax relief to conduct an adaptive reuse and expansion of the property at Batavia Towne Center that will create jobs and new investment in our community and just as important the application submitted fulfills the criteria for retail under the new state law.

Q. According to COR, the stores will invest a collective $11 million in opening their stores. If a retail business is willing to make that kind of financial comment to a community, how can we believe that tax incentives are critical to attracting national retail to Batavia?

A. Think about that for a moment. If you had an opportunity to make a $1.8 million investment over 10 years, which is essentially what our incentive package totals, and the return on that investment was $11 million worth of capital investment, who would not make that deal. On top of that, our investment of $1.8 million is going to be returned in the first year alone based on sales tax revenue generation which will benefit our community and help keep property tax rates down.  Without our assistance, there is no $11 million capital investment and no new sales tax revenue for our community thereby creating additional pressure to raise property taxes which hurt residents and businesses.

Q. GCEDC has asserted that it's bad for the community and bad for attracting business to have Lowe's vacant. In the time since it's been vacant, GCEDC has landed two major tenants and is about to land a third for the Genesee Valley Agri-Business Park. What evidence is there that a vacant Lowe's hurts business development?

A. When both Alpina and Muller Quaker were touring the area, the Lowe’s store was in fact still open which showed the companies that we did in fact have a vibrant retail center immediately located off of the I-90. Moreover, we are trying to take a holistic approach to economic development here in our community. You seemingly are taking the view that the Lowe’s vacancy does not “hurt” business development; we take the view, based on our years of experience in the company attraction business, that a vibrant retail center located at the gateway of our community enhances our ability to attract companies to our community in this very competitive world of economic development.

Q. GCEDC has asserted that it's bad to have a vacant Lowe's, but COR has said that it's bad for the rest of Batavia Towne Center to have a vacant Lowe's. Doesn't COR have a strong motivation to lease that space even without tax abatements?

A. I don’t want to single COR out; they are a prominent developer and like many developers they have options and choices as to where to lure their retail clients. Our decision was based on an application that our board believes fulfills the criteria under the new state law specific to retail projects. We believe the return on investment that will be generated through the tax assistance provided will create a vibrant towne center.

Q. What do you say to a comment such as Mike Barrett's, that tax incentives are like "using your own tax money to put yourself out of business"?

A. Alpina and Muller Quaker and the related economic benefits would not have occurred without the incentives being provided through the GCEDC. To the contrary, we are using incentives to create new jobs and new wealth and subsequently new tax revenues to make our community more prosperous and an even better place to work, live and play. I can assure you that Alpina and Muller Quaker are not putting local dairy farmers out of business.

Q. Based on our polls and nearly daily discussions with people in our community, it's difficult to find local residents who support tax breaks going to COR. Is it appropriate for GCEDC to go against the wishes of the vast majority of Genesee County residents on such an important issue?

A. Genesee County has a population of approximately 60,000 residents. A public hearing was held in the evening which was open to the public; about 30 residents attended and six spoke against the project during the hearing. One letter was received at the offices of the GCEDC opposing the project and was officially included in the transcripts of the hearing. The board was provided a written copy of the transcripts from the public hearing prior to voting to approve the adaptive reuse and expansion project at Batavia Towne Center. I think if we were to start relying on polling that admittedly in not statistically accurate and to use that data to make decisions about economic development, you would not see many businesses even contemplating coming to our community.

Q. Will GCEDC continue to have a policy of providing tax breaks to retail projects even though there is a significant body of research that shows tax incentives to retail have no tangible return to local communities and even though the vast majority of Genesee County residents oppose such tax breaks?

A. The GCEDC as a matter of practice does not pursue retail projects. This is evidenced to our not participating in the Tim Horton’s project locating at the west end of Batavia and the McDonald’s project planned for Aldi plaza in the City on the east end. We will continue to comply with state law while advancing our vision and mission to provide a positive place to do business for all companies. There is a significant body of evidence that shows there is a tangible return to local communities. To claim that the “vast majority” of residents oppose such tax breaks is subjective at best without any real statistically accurate information to substantiate such a claim.

Friday, May 17, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Hawley defends GCEDC's tax breaks for COR Development

Press release:

Assemblyman Steve Hawley (R,I,C-Batavia) recently voiced his support for the Genesee County Economic Development Center (GCEDC) and its successful efforts to attract a Dick’s Sporting Goods store to Towne Centre Mall in Batavia. The group was able to secure the store’s move through pro-business tax incentives, which will create local employment opportunities and increase sales tax revenue to support local programs and services. Hawley defended GCEDC against attacks from Buffalo-area Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who has publicly criticized the local economic development effort.

“Here in Batavia and across Genesee County, we deserve access to both consumer choice and employment opportunities. By attracting Dick’s to Towne Centre Mall, GCEDC has helped bolster both,” Hawley said. “Assemblyman Ryan’s attacks on our local economy are completely uncalled for. While he purports to be concerned with the use of state tax dollars, surely he would agree that one of the highest-taxed states in the nation has bigger fish to fry than Genesee County’s legal ability to strengthen its own economy. I believe it is in the best interests of all involved that assembly members focus on their own constituents and that he focuses on revitalizing Buffalo’s economy.”

“The GCEDC was created to help increase the tax base, create new jobs as well as bring new investment and revenues into our community. This project fulfills all of these criteria and without our assistance, these benefits would not be realized,” said Steve Hyde, president and CEO of the GCEDC. “The project will create jobs, increase sales tax revenue, bring new goods and services into the community, and reinvigorate what is currently a large, vacant space located at the gateway of our community off of I-90.”

Hawley noted the crucial role the GCEDC has played in attracting job creators to Genesee County and keeping them here long-term.

“Between the Genesee Valley Agri-business Park, Oakta Hills and countless other projects, GCEDC has long been at the forefront of job creation and economic development in our community,” Hawley said. “Throughout my time in the Assembly, we have worked diligently to revitalize our local economy, and GCEDC has my full support in its effort to bring jobs to our community.”

Friday, May 17, 2013 at 4:05 pm

GCEDC attorney says COR Development subsidies perfectly legal

post by Howard Owens in Batavia Towne Center, COR Development, GCEDC

Press release:

“The Genesee County Economic Development Center requested and received a legal opinion regarding the approval of tax incentives for the COR Development project in the Town of Batavia as well as whether the project is legally exempt from new retail provisions recently passed into state law.

“We are pleased to announce that this opinion supports the recent vote by our board to approve these incentives as well as the exemption to the new law.

“The GCEDC strongly believes that this project will bring goods into the community that are not currently available to area residents. It should be noted that other tenants also will be opening in near future providing residents with other goods and services in what is currently a large vacant space located at the gateway of our community off of the I-90.”

“More importantly, the sales tax revenues that will be generated in just one year will be more than the incentives provided to the developer. The GCEDC was created to help create new jobs as well as bring new investment and revenues into our community. This project fulfills all of these criteria and without our assistance these benefits would not be realized.”

Downoad: PDF of Attorney's Letter.

Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 11:52 pm

Questions linger about legality of GCEDC's approval of COR Development tax breaks

post by Howard Owens in Batavia Towne Center, COR Development, GCEDC

Was the Genesee County Economic Development Center Board of Directors' decision to provide $1.7 million in tax abatements to COR Development legal?

That depends on who you ask.

A Buffalo assemblyman thinks the GCEDC board violated provisions of the 2013-14 budget act, which attempts to curtail state sales tax abatments for retail projects.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan is asking for an investigation by the state's tax commissioner, but when The Batavian contacted Taxation and Finance Department last week, it took awhile to get a response and when we did, the agency passed the buck to the state's Budget Office.

So far, no state agency has expressed much interest in taking a closer look at GCEDC's actions.

At issue is a resolution passed by the GCEDC board that found COR's proposal to redevelop the former Lowe's location in Batavia Towne Center meets the necessary legal requirements to receive state aid.

Specifically, under terms of the law, an IDA cannot provide relief on state sales tax without making certain findings. Among the possible findings are that the project will serve as a tourist destination or that it's in a highly distressed area.

The finding for the COR project by the GCEDC board was that the project provides goods and services that are not readily available to local residents from current retail stores.

At the time the board passed the resolution, the only publicly announced tenant for COR's project was Dick's Sporting Goods.

Last week, at a Town of Batavia Planning Board meeting, it came out that Kohl's is a likely tenant.

There may be at least one other, and possibly a fourth, tenant, but there's no reliable indication of who those tenants might be.

Today, GCEDC Chairman Charlie Cook said at the time of the vote, the board had been given two other names, but acknowledged negotiations were still under way between the retailers and COR at the time of the vote. There is no guarantee that those retailers will be the ones to eventually occupy the space.

The big question is whether Dick's meets the requirement under the law for providing goods and services not readily available in the local market.

Ryan has pointed out -- as most Genesee County residents know -- there are four sporting goods stores in Batavia. There are also three department stores that sell sporting goods.

Cook said he's not much of a sporting goods shopper and is largely unaware of the type of merchandise carried by Dick's or what local retailers might offer that is similar or different.

"I feel the input that I had from the people in the community was that having Dick's here would be a huge draw for the surrounding area, and I guess that's something people will always have a differing opinion about," Cook said.

Prior to approving the COR abatements, the GCEDC conducted a public hearing on the project, as required by law.

COR VP Joseph B. Gerardi made a presentation about the project at the hearing, but no GCEDC staff covered the agency's position on the project. 

The pending resolution, with its key finding about the uniqueness of the project, was not made available by GCEDC staff at the meeting or prior to the vote by the board the following Thursday.

In other words, the public had no opportunity to review specifically what the board would vote on and comment on it.

State law enacted in 2012 requires "to the extent practicable" that resolutions to be voted on be made available to the public prior to the meeting.

We requested an interview with GCEDC CEO Steve Hyde this afternoon, but he was tied up in meetings and unavailable.

After the May 2 vote approving package of incentives, The Batavian began making inquiries trying to find out who, if anyone, would enforce the IDA law if there was any question about its application for a retail project.

We found press offices with state agencies willing to provide information "on background," but nobody willing to provide on-the-record information about the law and how it's enforced, if at all.

One exception was the Comptroller's Office, where spokesman Bruce Butry was willing to be as helpful as he could be.

The Comptroller's Office could conceivably audit the GCEDC and even focus on this specific project, but an audit would merely result in a written report, leaving it up to the County Legislature to act, or not, on any findings.

"At the end of the day, it's up to the people in the local community," Butry said. "Some of these IDAs operate with very little accountability other than the pressure put on the boards by the public regarding the types of projects they're going to approve."

The Governor's Office had no on-the-record comment about the law or the local situation.

Butry suggested we try Taxation and Finance. Once we reached the right person, he was very friendly, but he said it was up to the state's Budget Office to answer any questions about the law.

In response to a long list of e-mailed questions, Morris Peters, spokesman for New York State Division of Budget, provided some information "on background," and this statement for publication:

“Under these reforms, grocery stores will no longer be given tax breaks to move across the street. Tax dollars will be focused on those industries that create jobs and companies who will move to New York to help build our economy.”

Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who represents Genesee County, isn't surprised that Albany is keeping this issue at arm's length. He believes the decisions to provide abatements is a local issue and should be considered beyond interference from state agencies.

"I try not to meddle in local decision-making because there are too many people who do, like Mr. Ryan," Hawley said.

In response to Ryan's making public statements about the COR abatements, Hawley and Sen. Mike Ranzenhofer, who also represents Genesee County, were trying to organize a press conference for tomorrow to highlight the successes of GCEDC and invite Ryan to take a closer look at the agency, with an eye toward how he might better help his own constituents in the City of Buffalo achieve greater economic prosperity.

Scheduling conflicts may prevent that press conference from taking place.

Earlier today, Ryan and Hawley had a brief phone conversation in which Hawley said he asked Ryan, "Have you moved to Genesee County?"

When Ryan returned a call to The Batavian, he said, "I understand some people there are upset with me."

But Ryan said it was legitimate for him to call into question the GCEDC giveaway of state tax money because it affects his constituents, too, as it does all taxpayers in the State of New York.

"It all goes back to this: whose tax dollars are they handing out?" Ryan said. "Those tax dollars belong to every taxpayer in the State of New York."

A cynic might think that Ryan's real motive is to keep Dick's Sporting Goods out of Batavia so that Genesee County residents continue to drive to Erie County to shop.

Ryan said, "You could say that, but you should say he wants high wage jobs so that people can raise families and that we should use our scarce revenue to bring in those high wage jobs, not low-paying retail jobs that require people to draw on Medicare and food stamps because the wages are so low. That's not good for our economy and that's not good economic development."

To Ryan's point, the Comptroller's Office has a long history of taking a critical look at IDAs, even before Thomas DiNapoli held the office, particularly in the area of tax abatements for retail projects.

The current law attempting to curtail tax breaks for retail projects is based on a similar law that the state Legislature allowed to expire in 2008.

In 2006, the Comptroller's Office issued a report looking at implementation of the law and found that IDAs found creative ways to skirt it.

(The) exceptions, all of which are applied at the discretion of local IDA boards, can make the retail prohibition ineffective.

Since the application of these exceptions is determined at the discretion of each IDA, these criteria are sometimes subject to expansive interpretations.

The examples given were out of Erie County and included "tourism destination" designation for projects because they were located near an airport or Thruway exit.

Last week, the office again issued a report on IDAs and included a discussion of why it's important to curtail tax breaks for retail projects.

Retail projects generally do not increase the level of jobs available in a region or economic activity, as project-related gains often come at the expense of other retail enterprises in the area, and the jobs associated with retail trade tend to pay significantly less than manufacturing or other professional jobs. The restriction on retail projects was reinstated in the 2013-14 State Fiscal Year Budget, indicating that State policymakers understand the limited usefulness of these projects for economic development.

And ...

Very few of the IDAs sponsoring retail projects reported the estimated salaries of the jobs to be created, but data from the New York State Department of Labor shows that the average starting salary for a retail salesperson is $17,250, while the average for first line retail supervisors is $28,720.

IDAs, Ryan said, have become "subsidy machines."

"COR gets these subsidies from Buffalo to Syracuse," Ryan said. "They've figured it out. They know they can come to these IDAs and have their project viewed favorably because they say, 'see what a great thing we're doing for the community,' and everybody can say they're a part of it. The politicians run for election and stand in front of the place and say, 'look at what we brought here.' "

Ryan doesn't even believe it's about the commission check GCEDC will get for the project, which could total $100,000. It's about looking good, he said.

Even if Ryan is successful -- and Hawley doubts anybody in Albany will take serious an out-of-district assembly member calling for an investigation -- in getting the tax commissioner to look at the project, it's unclear from the IDA law what power, if any, the commissioner has to overturn a local decision.

Here's the relevant section of the law:

The commissioner is hereby authorized to audit the records, actions, and proceedings of an IDA and of its agents and project operators to ensure that the IDA and its agents and project operators comply with all the requirements of this section. Any information the commissioner finds in the course of such audit may be used by the commissioner to assess and determine state and local taxes of the IDA's agent or project operator.

And even if the commissioner can recapture the tax revenue, Butry, from the Comptroller's Office, said it only applies to the state sales tax incentive.

COR received a tax break on state and local sales tax for the purchase of building material, as well as a revised PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) on the increased assessment and mortgage tax relief.

Ryan agrees that there is no provision in the law for anybody in Albany to overturn the PILOT, the local sales tax or mortgage tax abatement. Those are entirely local decisions.

At the public hearing, Gerardi said the local share of sales tax revenue from the project would be $1 million.

Using that as a base for calculation, that puts projected annual gross revenue at build out at about $26 million.

Gerardi said the retailers coming into the project would invest $11 million.

Those don't sound like numbers, Ryan said, of companies that need tax incentives to build retail projects and create a playing field that isn't level for existing retailers.

Charlie Cook said he truly believes that in a small market like Batavia, big retailers won't come here without a reduction in their operating costs.

"You hate to see that big empty building just sitting there," Cook said. "They are offering an opportuinty to fill it with something that is vibrant and exciting and has the potential to draw in outside people."

Mike Barrett of Batavia Marine and Kurt Fisher of Fisher Sports have said they believe they can compete with Dick's on quality and service and Cook said he is hoping that is true.

"As you pointed out, these businesses have proven to be resilient and able to find niches and services that continue to make them very successful," Cook said. "That's my hope, that everyone is going to be a winner in the long run."

Cook said he and the GCEDC board are just trying to do the best they can for the community and there's no intent to subvert the law.

"We're a board of volunteers and the one thing we're interested in is promoting business development in Genesee County," Cook said. "That's our only motivation to sit on the board and when those opportunities come up, we embrace them."

As to any legal concerns raised by Ryan, Cook said that GCEDC has asked its attorneys to review Ryan's assertions, but Cook also said that prior to the board's vote, legal counsel assured the board that the action it was about to take was legal and proper.

"We're not out to push anything through that is improper," Cook said. All the information we had said it was perfectly proper and I guess at this point, we'll defend that. If it turns out that it wasn't, we'll review our policies and not do that anymore."

Monday, May 13, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Video: Buffalo TV station airs lengthy piece on salary paid to GCEDC CEO Steve Hyde

post by Howard Owens in business, GCEDC
Here's WGRZ's report on the compensation paid to Steve Hyde, CEO of GCEDC.
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