Anderson Provides Crucial Third Vote as Council Approves Hamister Project
By Tony Farina
The sometimes fierce debate over the proposed $25.3 million Hamister hotel project in downtown Niagara Falls ended on Tuesday night as Councilmember Bob Anderson, stating he was satisfied that his concerns about the development had been addressed, cast the deciding third vote to approve the deal.
Anderson broke ranks with the other two members of the current council majority, Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Sam Fruscione, and voted in favor of the Hamister project along with Councilmembers Kristen Grandinetti and Charles Walker.
The 3 - 2 vote ends two months of wrangling between the council majority and the administration of Mayor Paul Dyster and state officials all the way up to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who were pushing hard for the council to approve the sale of the prime downtown parcel on Rainbow Blvd. to the Hamister Group for $100,000---compared to its appraised value of $1.5 million --- and move the project forward.
Empire State Development (ESD), the governor’s chief economic development agency, issued a press release before Tuesday’s vote praising Anderson for his pledge to support the project during weekend talks with Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State.
"I would like to thank Councilman Anderson for his support of this project,"Cuomo said in the release. "Councilman Anderson took the time to seriously consider the proposal, ask the right questions and ultimately act in the best interest of the people of Niagara Falls. It is projects such as this that will result in jobs, new tax revenue and other economic benefits for the local community."
According to Cuomo’s agency, Anderson was assured "that the project will include a performance bond, that any reverter clause will shield the city from any future liabilities and that every effort will be made to hire local workers when construction begins."
"I’ve done my due diligence and believe that the Hamister project is good for our community,"said Anderson in the state agency’s release. "I am proud to throw my support behind this much-needed development and look forward to casting my vote in favor of the project later today,"which he did.
Anderson thanked Cuomo and Hoyt "for their direct involvement and leadership, as well as helping to get me comfortable with some key elements of the overall transaction." Hoyt himself shouldered some blame for not reaching out personally to lawmakers a little sooner, saying he failed to realize "each councilmember is their own person,"and not part of any organized resistance.
Choolokian and Fruscione continued their opposition to the Hamister deal, with Fruscione saying after the meeting that in his view, "no compromise, no deal,"adding he believes the liberals "will start spending the city into the ground,"an obvious reference to last week’s Democratic primary vote where he ran last in a four-way race for the three seats up in November’s general election. It likely means Fruscione, who will have only two minor lines in November, pretty much ending his two-term run on the council, and will also likely see a shift in the new council come January that will be more receptive to Mayor Dyster’s agenda.
Many believe Fruscione’s opposition to the Hamister project cost him the primary election, and when asked about whether or not he believed that was the case, Mayor Dyster said "I think the people spoke. This [Hamister project] was very important."
As for Choolokian, the changes made by the state in the Hamister deal did nothing to change his mind. "I’m still against it,"said Choolokian after casting his no vote. "We’ve taken New York State’s word in the past and got burned, whether on the parkway or the power authority, and now we’re going to take their word again. I hope it works out this time. I still don’t believe it is the best deal they could have done for the taxpayers of Niagara Falls."
Hoyt "updated" the council before Tuesday’s vote, saying officials had attempted to address as many of the questions put forward by lawmakers as possible over the last month, setting the stage for council approval.
Hoyt, a polished political veteran who served many years in the State Assembly, said his agency responded to the 10 main questions raised by the council in a communication early last month through City Corporation Counsel Craig Johnson’s Aug. 14 letter. He highlighted the points made by Johnson in remarks before Tuesday’s vote.
Hoyt told lawmakers the developer [Hamister] will hire a work force from this city and this county, and if necessary from the region and will be required to complete a performance bond to protect the city. Hoyt also said regarding the reverter clause that if the project is not completed, the property will come back to the city "debt free."
In addition, Hoyt said the Hamister Group would not make any effort to create a tax free zone under new state laws for at least 10 years without the council’s approval. Under the agreement, the hotel project will benefit from a standard 10-year PILOT agreement from the Niagara County IDA and will also be subsidized to the tune of $2.75 million by the state through USA Niagara, a development agency under Empire State.
After the vote, in addressing reporters, Hoyt said it was time to celebrate, saying the council’s approval of the agreement "will send the message [to developers] that Niagara Falls is a good place to do business,"and he also said that there are other projects waiting in the wings, and announcements could come soon.
Pressed on when work would begin on the Hamister development, which would include 110 upscale hotel rooms, 24 residential apartments, and up to 8,000 square feet of street-level retail, Mayor Dyster said it was getting late in the construction year and work not likely begin before next spring.
Dan Hamister, senior vice president of the Hamister Group, said in response to a question about whether the financing was in place to proceed with the project, said "we don’t have any problems raising money." Some lawmakers had raised questions about whether Hamister had the resources in place to move forward on the project, and it would seem that Dan Hamister’s response confirms that work is still going on to put the financing package in place.
Dan Hamister said once work is started, it would take about two years to complete the mixed-use project at 310 Rainbow that many see as a crucial step to attracting new development to Niagara Falls.
Dyster praised the personal diplomacy of the governor and Hoyt that kept the project alive after Hamister threatened to pull out after a campaign flier distributed before the primary referred to him as a "con man".
State Assemblyman John Ceretto (R, C, I, -Lewiston), praised Gov. Cuomo’s efforts in helping to close the Hamister deal and urged lawmakers to come together to support the project for the city of Niagara Falls, saying it will provide the city with jobs and economic development which are sorely needed.
When the final vote was taken, the nearly-filled council chambers erupted in applause for lawmakers who voted to approve the project. A clearly angry Fruscione later brushed aside Hoyt’s attempt to shake hands, but Hoyt took it in stride and later praised Anderson, Grandinetti and Walker for their leadership in moving the project forward.
Former Mayor Vince Anello called the Hamister deal a small step forward, adding that the city needs to reach "a critical mass"in development and hopefully convince the state to help put together a package for a new convention center. He called on leaders to stop making things too personal on important issues and concentrate on putting the people’s business first.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
SEP 10, 2013