Buffalo Insider Hamister Knows How to Spend Your Money Better Than You Do
By Lori Lane
But this is Mayor Paul Dyster's city hall.
On July 1, USA Niagara President Chris Schoepflin met with Niagara Falls City Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Sam Fruscione, along with City Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson, at 4 p.m.
It was late in the afternoon.
The meeting lasted one half hour and ended when Schoepflin abruptly left the meeting in apparent disgust.
According to notes taken at the meeting by Council Chief of Staff Kevin Ormsby, and from eyewitness accounts, the purpose of the meeting was for Schoepflin and Johnson to inform the two councilmen about the details of the Hamister Group LLC's proposed hotel project at 310 Rainbow Boulevard.
At the meeting, the councilmen heard for the first time that the council was being asked to approve the sale of this city-owned property to Hamister for $100,000.
Article IV, §59 of the City Charter authorizes direct sales of city-owned realty property when the City Council determines, by majority vote, that the best interests of the City will be best served by such a sale. In short, only the council can approve the sale of the land to Hamister.
Choolokian pointed out at the meeting that he was surprised by this $100,000 figure. Certainly, the property is worth more than that.
Schoepflin and Johnson argued the council had given USAN the right to negotiate the deal with Hamister. That was the price they negotiated.
Wait a minute, Choolokian shot back, the Council approved that USA Niagara could negotiate with Hamister in February 2012, but in March 2012, Choolokian told USA Niagara that “the city has no money for this deal. If you’re looking for the city to help pay for the deal, or give a handout to Hamister, it isn’t going to happen.”
Perhaps both men recalled Choolokian's earlier warning and had hoped Choolokian only meant cash giveaways: that a gift of land might be OK.
But now, both Fruscione and Choolokian balked at the virtual giveaway of public land to a millionaire developer.
At first Schoepflin, then Johnson, tried to suggest the property might only be worth $100,000. It then came out that the parcel was never appraised.
Imagine that, Fruscione said. You want to sell a parcel, but never bothered to find out what it's worth.
Fruscione pointed out that local hotelier Frank Strangio paid more than $1 million for another parcel farther away from the tourism core for a proposed hotel.
“He paid a million for a parcel that is not as valuable as this one and you are telling me this one is worth only $100,000? I can't support this at $100,000 when we know the land is worth at least $1.5 to $2 million,” Fruscione said.
At this point Choolokian, produced an email from city assessor James Bird, which stated it was the assessors opinion that the property was worth $1.5 to $2 million or possibly more.
Both councilmen noted the low sale price wasn’t their only concern.
They told Schoepflin they felt left out of the process, hadn’t been informed along the way and had concerns over the secretive selection process.
Now all of a sudden, there is a rush?
In October 2011, USA Niagara and the City, through the Mayor’s office, sent out a Request for Proposals (RFP). By December, four men meeting privately in a room — Mayor Dyster, Schoepflin, his boss, Empire State Development Regional President Sam Hoyt and Johnson — chose the Hamister Group in a closed door meeting.
What other offers came from the RFP was never told to the public.
It took 17 months after it was announced that Hamister was chosen to get to the point where the city's contribution was told to the councilmen who would decide the deal.
At the meeting, Choolokian and Fruscione then asked who was on the original review committee, how many other proposals had been received besides Hamister and who were the other bidders?
Johnson and Schoepflin declined to name the other bidders and gave different answers as to the numbers of bidders: one said six and the other said maybe 8.
Choolokian said, “I was told the Mayor was on the selection committee."
Schoepflin said he was not, but that City Planner Tom DeSantis was on the committee and "some legal staff from USA Niagara."
"It’s cloudy," Choolokian said. "There’s no reason for this secretive behavior and lack of information. How many bidders? Who were they? What did they propose? Who — I want names — who was on the selection committee? Until we get these answers…”
“Go ahead then," Schoepflin shouted at Choolokian, "and chase a developer like Mark Hamister out of town!!!!”
The two councilmen declined to respond to the somewhat spurious comment and waited instead for the answers to their questions.
The men stared at each other in icy silence.
Schoepflin then said, "It looks like there's nothing left to discuss." Then without answering the spate of questions the councilmen had asked, he rose from his seat and left the meeting.
Two days later, a 10-page contract with the Hamister Group was placed on the July 8 Council agenda.
We dare you not to vote for this… the mayor in effect was saying. We will get a media blitz and embarrass you into approving this.
So here we are: the deal was finally told to the council on July 1. The contract suddenly emerges on the afternoon of July 3, on the eve of the 4th of July weekend.
And the council is expected to vote yes or no on the deal on July 8, the first full business day after they received the 10-page contract.
Who, but a blockhead, could vote yes or no on such a deal? The council waited 17 months, then, all of a sudden, they are expected to vote on the sale of a major downtown parcel, for a fraction of its price, on a complicated project within a week of hearing the price, less than a week of getting the contract and on the first day they could meet, and with most of their questions unanswered.
And this is Dyster's city hall.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
JUL 09, 2013