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Tax exemption for Syracuse bookstore hinges on public access

Cameron Group, LLC
The Syracuse Common Council is inching closer to approving a proposed tax break for a new bookstore and fitness center.

A new bookstore and fitness center on University Hill in Syracuse may get a tax break after all.

The margin needed for approval has narrowed.

Members of the Syracuse Common Council and an economic development official confirmed Monday that new terms on the deal have been reached, at least in principal.

Those new terms - mainly centered on increased public access to the facility - have at least one more Common Councilor likely voting "yes" on the project, according to councilor Khalid Bey, who chairs the economic development committee.

Still, at least one more "no" vote will need to switch to "yes" before the project is approved, according to Bey's current whip count.

Two weeks ago, the council was poised to vote down a 30-year tax break for a developer hoping to build an off-campus bookstore and fitness center for Syracuse University. The bill was then withdrawn for more negotiations.

Public access

Talks over the new terms happened last Wednesday. The developer and Syracuse University agreed to allow access to the fitness center and host programs for area youth. There would also be job apprenticeships and local hiring, according to councilors who were at the meeting.

"There are some good plusses that are going to benefit the community," says councilor Helen Hudson, who says she's now leaning towards approving the tax break. "I think we kind of bargained out some good things."

But the developer is not getting too optimistic.

"We pushed the needle over to our side a little bit," says developer Thomas Valenti of Cameron Group. "I think we're getting there."

Some councilors said Monday they wanted to see the new agreement written up in legislation before confirming their votes. That has yet to happen.

A "look in the mirror"

One of the swing votes for the project remains councilor Jake Barrett.

"This is a development project that falls within a larger scope of how the city should look at purposing tax-exempt properties," says Barrett. "It's fortunate we have this project to look in the mirror as a community."

More than half of the city's properties are already tax-exempt.

The only other development to be granted a 30-year tax break is the stalled Destiny USA mega-mall project.

A vote on the bookstore and fitness center could come as early as the next council meeting, according to Bey, as long as no major changes to the actual tax break are made.

If changes were to be made, the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency (SIDA) would have to re-approve the project. SIDA voted 3-2 on the deal, but one of those "yes" votes is no longer on the board and the position has not yet been filled, according to SIDA Executive Director Ben Walsh.

"When I got into development, I had to learn to count the majority," says developer Valenti. "And we're not there yet."

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