By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — The state's development arm in the Falls is helping a Third Street restaurant finance a makeover.
The board of directors for the USA Niagara Development Corp. voted unanimously Thursday to approve a $20,000 reimbursement grant for a street facade and retail restoration project at Zakia Indian Cuisine, with a price tag of $90,000.
The grant allowed Prabhdeep Sandhu, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Mandeep, to make improvements to the restaurant last year that he said would have taken him a decade without the state's help.
"A grant upfront helps," Sandhu said. "People see a difference and they come in."
The improvements allow the restaurant to stay open all year - it has previously operated on a seasonal basis - and will allow the Sandhus to add the equivalent of five full-time jobs to the seven that the restaurant previously provided, according to the resolution which details the terms of the grant.
Prabhdeep said the restaurant has already added a handful of employees.
"I was able to get everything done and finished so that people could experience the whole restaurant completely," Prabhdeep said.
The restaurant owners also received a $10,000 grant for the project from the city's Community Development Department.
State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, attended the meeting, though he does not sit on the board of directors. He raised concerns about the state investing in restaurants, something he says USA Niagara staff told him the organization did not do after he objected last year to the agency supporting the development of a restaurant as part of a renovation project at a Holiday Inn on Buffalo Avenue.
"They said that they don't do restaurants," Maziarz said.
Maziarz said the agency gets around their own rule of not investing in restaurants by saying that the money is used to invest in the building and not the business. He called the grant "inappropriate."
"I think that's just a way of (USA Niagara) helping a restaurant without saying they're helping a restaurant," Maziarz said.
Chris Scheopflin, the executive director of USA Niagara, said by investing in the building the agency is not only helping that business owner but any subsequent businesses in that space and neighboring businesses.
"The use is not what we are investing in," Schoepflin said. "We are investing n the physical building, which is not only good for that owner but good for the entire neighborhood."
Schoepflin said investments in facades and the like can spur neighboring businesses to make improvements to their buildings.
"We're trying to, wherever possible, upgrade existing conditions," Schoepflin said. "Especially on Third Street, which desperately needs it."