Caught in the middle

Running a business in an economically-challenged area can be difficult at best, having the reputation of your business sullied by something that was not your fault doesn’t make things any easier.

P&G Foods owner Gary Damico is one of those business people. In 2011, the city provided $7,148 in Community Development Block Grant funds to P&G to pay 50 percent of a facade improvement on the Central Avenue building. After a review of CDBG records by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development the P&G project, along with several others, was ruled ineligible. A total of some $700,000 will have to be repaid, although the prospect of the city repaying its CDBG accounts and reusing the money is still awaiting HUD’s decision.

HUD cited a lack of job creation as the reason for P&G’s ineligibility. Damico told the OBSERVER that city officials knew at the time that additional jobs were not likely.

“I brought that to their attention in 2011 to let everybody know that this project is possibly not going to add people. … From that point to now, Quality has closed, we were at our peak with 22 employees and then all of a sudden Aldi’s opened, Walmart put on a super store, Save-A-Lot opened, and the biggest thing is the fire that hit downtown Dunkirk,” Damico stated. “We lost another who knows how many customers out of that fire. How do you keep going by adding people in a city that’s not growing? We feel that just being here, surviving and providing a service that’s essential to downtown Dunkirk should be sufficient. … You can’t predict the future of what’s going to happen but the point I was trying to make was just because one piece of that criteria wasn’t met still doesn’t deem that this project wasn’t eligible. We want to be taken off that list.

“I’ve had people come in here and question why we would take money that didn’t belong to us. Well, we didn’t, it did belong to us. We made a project out of it that helped the city. We’re feeling that the city shouldn’t have to pay our money back.”

Mayor Anthony J. Dolce said the P&G money was part of the $700,000 in question and Development Director Steve Neratko had looked into the situation.

“We were asked to provide the paperwork we had on file. That is what we did and HUD made their determination from there, just from the records the city had on file and requested additional files throughout this process,” Dolce explained. “Everything we had we sent on. Anything we had they wanted on those projects, on all projects.”

Dolce was asked if HUD contacted any of the listed ineligibles.

“I don’t know. All I know is we did what was requested of us,” he replied. “In Gary’s instance, I don’t think there’s job creation. I think HUD looked at the information and said it didn’t create jobs so it wasn’t eligible. It wasn’t any ill intent.”

Dolce was asked if it was a case of Damico operating in good faith but the money he was given turned out to come from the wrong place.

“That’s a way of saying that. HUD had issues with the facade program in general and how the money was doled out. That might be part of the bigger issue in his case. Each case is separate,” the mayor stated.

It’s that word – ineligible – that Damico is concerned about.

“I’m not sure the wording is right on that when they say ineligible. When I hear the word ineligible it means to me that that person wasn’t qualified,” he stated. “I keep throwing it back, if we weren’t supposed to get those funds, number one, why did the city approve it? Number two, it had to go through HUD, they approved it.”

Damico said P&G was supposed to provide employment to low and moderate income people, along with providing essential services, something he has done.

“We made employment to Dunkirk residents a top priority. Currently we have 69 percent of our employees that live in Dunkirk, well above the 51 percent, because that’s what the target was, unless HUD has changed the target,” he explained. “P&G has made a practice of hiring minorities. Currently we have 31 percent minority working here, Spanish speaking, we need it.

“I’m not questioning if the city didn’t follow through, that’s different. The term we hate is P&G was ineligible for the funds and we’d like to see why we were ineligible. … I need to have HUD show me where we were ineligible to receive these funds and I’m looking for a correction that P&G Foods was eligible to receive the funds, however the city may have not followed through on whatever they were supposed to do.”

Damico was asked if he was caught in the middle between HUD and the city.

“I looked at the criteria CDBG had back then and I don’t see where there’s anything in here,” he replied. “I think that our project has improved the exterior. I think we had a need because of the business we’re operating and who we service and number of new positions available to low- and moderate-income residents. We have given a lot of positions to a lot of low to moderate and they may have come and gone, but we’re still here to provide that.

“Every time we hire somebody we get a slew of applicants. The first thing we try to do is go through them and see who lives in Dunkirk, that’s our main objective even though this program has expired.”

Damico said he received a letter from the city in December 2012 that asked for information.

“We sent our information but I also put down that there were no jobs created. As long as we’re in business we’re always going to retain the positions. … We sent this into them,” he added.

Dolce said P&G Foods did all its paperwork.

“But they didn’t create any jobs … in order to qualify for the facade money you have to create jobs,” he added.

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