$5M State Funding For NCC Stuns Chairman

“I was totally flabbergasted,” is how Tom Benson expressed his feelings following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that there would be $5 million included in the 2017-18 state budget for the National Comedy Center.

On Monday, Cuomo made the announcement while giving his Western New York State of the State Speech at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts in Amherst. Cuomo said as part of his Buffalo Billion Squared proposal, he has proposed funding the future national attraction $5 million in gap funding to close out the money necessary for the $20 million project.

Prior to Cuomo’s announcement, Tom Benson, National Comedy Center chairman, said comedy center officials were invited to Cuomo’s speech, but didn’t know about the $5 million announcement beforehand.

“We were told to invite the board and the staff because the governor was going to feature the comedy center som how. We thought that meant he was going to mention us as a key project for Western New York. Something he was supporting. We had no idea he was going to feature us by unveiling a brand new award of $5 million,” Benson said. “I was totally flabbergasted. I think that is the right word to describe it when he started to talk about that.”

Benson said he hasn’t had any official conversations with the state about the $5 million award, but it is his understanding this is a new proposal that will be part of the 2017-18 budget. He believes the $600,000 the National Comedy Center was awarded by the state in December through the consolidated funding application process as part of the Regional Economic Development Council program is separate from this newly announced funding. The comedy center also received $234,000 in state funding last year for two large digital screens and the hologram theater projection system. To go along with funding in 2016, the state also awarded comedy center officials $1.5 million in 2014 and $2,025,000 in 2015.

”The governor’s office clearly understands the importance and magnitude of the project. It is not just something that is happening in Jamestown, but is important for Western New York. The payback is just not for Jamestown, but for all of Western New York,” he said. ”We have the governor in one of the most important and impactful speeches of the year … make this kind of statement and commitment to the National Comedy Center project here in Jamestown. This really hits home for me and it should really hit home for everyone around here.”

Benson said, even with the governor’s announcement, they will still proceed with the financing they’ve been trying to secure for the comedy center project. Benson said this includes continuing to seek Federal New Market Tax Credits and funding from the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

”If we had the $5 million today, it would get us over the top, but we don’t have it today. All indications are we will have it once the (budget) process is completed. In the meantime, we have to stick to the initiatives we are in the midst of. We have to continue going down those paths. We are really close to the finish line. We need to close the financial dealings that are under way,” he said. ”We are in the process of vindicating Federal New Market Tax Credits to raise equity for the project. We’ve been working on that for almost three years now. We’re close to the end of the line to secure what we need. We are hopeful to close by the end of the first quarter of 2017. We have to continue despite this $5 million commitment. We have to show we have firm commitments for the rest of the funding, and we have to go down paths like with (Downtown Revitalization Initiative) funding and with other private sources. The tax credits are a competitive process. We have to do everything we can to get that done.”

Benson said comedy center officials are hoping to receive $2.1 million from the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Local stakeholders are continuing to work on how the $10 million from the state Downtown Revitalization Initiative will be awarded to downtown project. A list of approved projects is expected to be finalized in February.

”There are three chunks in the process (to finish financing the National Comedy Center). The (Downtown Revitalization Initiative), tax credits and privately sourced funding. The $5 million announced yesterday we are not considering contingent, but it has to go through the budget process. Next year’s state budget doesn’t start until spring. What we are hoping, as we move down parallel paths, that in the next 90 days everything happens that way we hope it will. We will continue the process that we started and enter the next phase of construction in early spring,” he said. ”The announcement of the $5 million doesn’t allow us to move any faster, but certainly provides us a huge shot in the arm from an overall perspective, from a capital and credibility standpoint. When the state makes this type of commitment, it tells the rest of the world that this is real.”