<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>

Phantom Hamister Agreement Still Shrouded in Secrecy

By Tony Farina

He doesn't have a hotel franchise.
Transparency lacking: Strangely, a contract was attested to by the city clerk,
but it is not on file with the city clerk. Why did she sign it early?
Craig Johnson: He has a plan.

The contract to build the $25.3 million Hamister hotel project in Niagara Falls that was a life-or-death issue for the Dyster Administration before last September’s primary that silenced his chief critic on the City Council, is still a phantom agreement that has not seen the light of day.

There are more questions than answers at this point about the controversial project, and while the Niagara Falls City Clerk has “attested” to the mayor’s signature on some documents, according to Corporation Council Craig Johnson, there is nothing on file as yet for the public to see.

The job of the city clerk, in this case Carol Antonucci, is to be the official records management officer for the city. But while Antonucci has admitted to city lawmakers that she signed something on Nov. 15 presented to her by Johnson, there is no record of what she signed and no contract on file in City Hall.

Gerald Chwalinski, the Buffalo city clerk for the last seven years, tells the Niagara Falls Reporter that he has never been asked to sign blank documents, and if he had been presented such documents by city lawyers, he would have never signed them.

“I wouldn’t sign it [blank documents],” said Chwalinski. “If I sign something, we file it, so there’s a record. And I checked with our corporation counsel, Tim Ball, and he confirmed that he would never ask the clerk to sign a blank document under any circumstances.” Chwalinski has worked in the clerk’s office for the City of Buffalo for the last 30 years.

Asked why he presented such documents to the Niagara Falls city clerk on Nov. 15, Corporation Counsel Johnson said he wanted to start the clock ticking on the developer’s due diligence period, which could take up to 120 days to complete.

The Reporter asked the corporation counsel why no public record was made of the clerk’s action, noting the Buffalo clerk would never sign such documents. Johnson responded that it was his decision, and that’s the final word.

City Clerk Antonucci was not at work on Monday when I went to her office to follow up on a Freedom of Information request by Publisher Frank Parlato seeking copies of the contract for the Hamister hotel project that was attested to or certified by her on Nov. 15. Attempts to reach her later by telephone were unsuccessful.

However an assistant in the city clerk’s office who did not wish to be quoted said the FOIL request had been sent upstairs to the law offices and there was nothing on file in the clerk’s office about what the clerk had signed at Johnson’s request.

She also said that it was by no means unusual in Niagara Falls for documents to be signed by the city clerk and returned to the law department before being made part of the public record, a totally different procedure than in Buffalo where the clerk maintains custody and control of all official documents. That procedure, of course, would protect against any changes being made to a document signed by the clerk before it was made a part of the public record.

It would appear that the parties to the development agreement, including the city, state, and the Hamister Group, have reached some kind of accord on the project but are nowhere near ready to go public yet, possibly because the developer is still looking for a flagship hotel for the downtown site and perhaps needs that commitment to finalize the financial arrangements.

Johnson said Monday the attestation by the city clerk will help the developer in the effort to get the flagship tenant. Unfortunately, the public remains in the dark on what it will take to bring in a deal that was billed as a transformational project that will pump new life into the downtown district and open the door to further development.

The council was pushed and prodded quite strongly to approve the deal or lose the developer, and after a big lobbying effort by Sam Hoyt, the governor’s point man on economic development in Western New York, and the governor himself, Council member Bob Anderson cast the deciding third vote to win council approval.

The approval came after the primary vote which saw Sam Fruscione, who had openly questioned the Hamister project, including the city selling the prime parcel for $100,000 even though it had been assessed at more than $1.5 million recently, lose his seat, many believe because of his opposition to the Hamister deal.

Mayor Dyster, who with Fruscione out of the way will likely have a much more friendly majority on the council, has publicly described the complex, 100-page Hamister agreement that no one has seen as a work in progress, making it sound like they are putting together the Panama Canal agreement that President Carter negotiated in 1977, or maybe the Yalta Treaty of 1945.

But despite the mystery, and the broken promises about when the contract will be made public, Corporation Counsel Johnson says he’s confident that when all is said and done, “all the parties” will be satisfied and he predicted that groundbreaking will come during the second part of next year with the grand opening in 2015.

Johnson expects the contract will surface mid-month, or 30 days after the clerk apparently attested to some blank documents containing the mayor’s signature. We hope he’s right and that the project will deliver on all the promises that have been made to make it happen.

So far, anyway, there is very little to show for all the hype that was generated about the project to end all projects for the city, the mighty Hamister five-story hotel and mixed-use development that will save the day and guarantee the future. Let’s hope the project eventually lives up to all the hype.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Dec 03, 2013