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Press Pass: Batavia Downs development harnesses tax breaks

A hotel project planned for Batavia Downs is receiving $628,000 in tax abatements, an allowance that has sparked criticism in Genesee County. On WBFO's Press Pass, Howard Owens, publisher of the The Batavian.com, makes sense of a dollars-and-cents issue for local taxpayers.

Owens says developers want to create a"Vegas experience" where bettors can get everything they seek in one location.

"One of the things about the hotel they're talking about is there will be rooms with balconies overseeing the race track so you don't have to leave your room to bet on the ponies."

Many of the readers to The Batavian.com are not enthralled with using tax dollars for such a concept. A website poll showed readers were three-to-one against the plan.

"Forget about any multiplier effect from how many jobs are created. Just hard dollars, taxpayers come out ahead," Owens explained.

"The project is expected to generate about $2.8 million in hard revenue, real revenue versus the $628,000 in tax breaks. As a businessman, I like that return on investment."

It's not the only proposal that is maneuvering along a bumpy road.

Some ambitious plans call for bike trails connecting parts of Batavia with a greater plan of eventually running throughout the county.

Federal money has been secured to boost the project, but creating a bike-friendly environment may prove to be difficult.  In recent years, the state Department of Transportation remade Route 63 in Batavia, installing bike lanes on both sides of the road.

"Talk to anyone around here, you never see anybody using the bike lanes. You talk to anybody around here and they will tell you it's scary," Owens said.

"I tried riding it one time and it was scary as hell."

He compares the local experience to a recent visit to San Diego where he took advantage of one of the bike rentals that are readily available.

"One morning I went for a ride through probably half of downtown....and I felt safer riding through this big metropolitan area with all these cars and cabs and people around than I do riding anywhere in the city of Batavia."

Beyond his own safety and recreation, Owens believes a bike-friendly atmosphere could be an asset in  attracting millennials. The demographic now outnumbers baby boomers across the country, though in  Batavia that is not the case.

"Batavia is at a cross-point of (deciding) what kind of city does it want to be in the future. Do we want to be a city of retirees increasingly taken over by people on social services and low-wage laborers? Or do we want to be a small city that's really vibrant with a lot of economic advantages where entrepreneurs like me want to set up shop. That takes figuring out how we attract millennials and be a city where millennials want to be in."

Owens believes the Batavia area has some of the accents that might be attractive to the demographic.

"Batavia has good bones. It's a great grid layout. We have lots of old homes that are in great shape; we have great homes that need a little bit of elbow grease. We have the potential for the kind of density that people who want that more urban environment want," Owens said.

"There will probably always be an aspect where we (enjoy)...low cost-of-living compared to a much larger city. I think that's going to be an attraction, too.


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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.