All Developers Deserve Favor: Unless You’re Michael Dicienzo

Rendering of proposed $50 million luxury hotel.

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By Jamie Moses;

There’s a very old saying “when in Rome do as the Romans.” The saying originally appeared in 390 A.D. as advice in a letter from St. Augustine to the Bishop of Naples. St. Augustine, who had traveled extensively, was pointing out that it is wise to adopt the customs of wherever you are.

We bring this up because of a recent flare up over Canadian hotel developer Michael DiCienzo’s plan to build a $20 million “daredevil-themed” water park and a $50 million luxury hotel addition on top of his Sheraton at the Falls in Niagara Falls, NY.

Mike DiCienzo owns the Sheraton at the Falls.
Mike DiCienzo owns the Sheraton at the Falls.

In 2006 the Sheraton on the Ontario side of the Falls opened a 90,000 square foot water park, which has proven a successful year-round attraction over the last 10 years of operation.

The dustup started when DiCienzo made it known he was seeking some financial help from the state for his project and went to a Niagara Falls council meeting to enlist their support getting Empire State Development to chip in. Before I continue, let me make the point that in Canada the government doesn’t fund private development projects. In fact, another Canadian, Toronto developer Harry Stinson working on a $100 million restoration of Buffalo’s Central Terminal train station (his first project in the United States) said “It never occurred to me to ask for public money. I never heard of such a thing. We don’t do that in Canada.”

It never occurred to DiCienzo either until he started projects in New York. On the Canadian side of Niagara Falls Dicienzo’s family has invested over $800 million of their own money. But when in Rome do as the Romans and in New York every developer tries to get public money to offset expenses. DiCienzo’s been doing business in the U.S. for a number of years and he sees how the game is played here. Unfortunately, he never seems to win and the reason is usually political. WGRZ’s Dave McKinley reported that it looks like politics might scuttle DiCienzo’s plan to get state funding.

Rendering of proposed $50 million luxury hotel.
Rendering of proposed $50 million luxury hotel.

It wouldn’t be the first time. DiCienzo was the obvious best choice to develop an exciting hotel project on Rainbow Ave. that he proposed but that property was instead given to Governor Cuomo’s buddy Mark Hamister to build a mediocre scaled down hotel with a bloated budget and $9.5 million in combined state grants and tax breaks. Hamister’s project stalled for years. DiCienzo was also in the running to develop the old Rainbow Mall but again lost out to a local political insider, Carl Montante’s Uniland Development. Three years later the Uniland project still hasn’t even begun and it took 4 1/2 years for Hamister to even break ground on his hotel, which is still not open.

In spite of past experiences, DiCienzo thought it can’t hurt to ask for some help from the state, particularly since every other developer around seems to have state money showered on them. But Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti seemed outraged at his request. After the council meeting where DiCienzo unveiled his project showing the council architectural renderings Grandinetti said “We have a process in place and it doesn’t include soliciting money at a city council meeting. It was improper, inappropriate, and it never should have happened.”  Grandinetti wasn’t done. “I think it’s an insult to the mayor and I think it’s an insult to the economic development department,” she said.

Proposed "Daredevil" themed water park
Proposed “Daredevil” themed water park

Since when did a developer showing public officials his project and seeking state assistance for large multi-million dollar endeavor become “an insult?” Maybe it only applies to political outsiders and Canadians.

Referring to Hamister and Montante WGRZ’s McKinley said to DiCienzo “Those guys give a lot of money to the governor. Do you?”  “No, not a dime,” said DiCienzo. “Then do you think the state will help you,” asked McKinley. “That’s probably part of my predicament,” DiCienzo answered.

“But it’s very common for these other developers to get 10% to 20% of their projects funded,” DiCienzo said [Hamister got closer to 30%].  “It’s true I don’t make political donations but they should put politics aside and do what’s best for the people of Niagara Falls.”

Geoffrey Reeds, vice president of sales and marketing for American Niagara Hospitality, said DiCienzo wants assistance “commensurate with the level (the state has) provided to other hospitality projects.”

Waterpark 1

That might sound reasonable to most people but not to Niagara Falls mayor Paul Dyster. The mayor threw water on the idea of funding “…[Empire State Development] would not want to subsidize a water park project by the loser of the Rainbow Mall RFP (DiCienzo) next door to a water park project by the winner of the RFP (Montante),” Dyster said. The Uniland project, by the way, is already guaranteed state subsidies. No doubt Dyster is thrilled to have Montante doing something in Niagara Falls and doesn’t want that project threatened with competition. That’s small thinking.

Water parks actually work well in clusters as evidenced by the three in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the five in the Poconos. Ever notice how McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King are all usually within spitting distance of each other? How about drug stores? In North Buffalo there’s a spot with a Rite-Aid, a CVS and a Walgreens all kitty-corner from each other at the same intersection. It turns out having similar businesses in close proximity helps all boats rise. If Dyster had any sense he would pitch in and fight for DiCienzo not shoot him down.

When news got out that several people in Niagara Falls felt that DiCienzo was being treated unfairly Laura Magee, Empire State Development’s spokesperson snarkily replied that the allegation of unfair treatment comes from a developer whose property has already received nearly $7 million in public assistance from Empire State Development Corp. and its local subsidiary, USA Niagara Development Corp. over the last decade, the largest being a $6 million grant in 2006.

OK, Magee, but DiCienzo didn’t own the property in 2006. ESD gave that money to The Crowne Plaza Hotel, which was foreclosed on. Incredulously, Magee went on to say that said in addition to money [which he didn’t get], “Mr. DiCienzo has been the beneficiary of the reconstruction of Third and Falls streets as well as summer programming along Old Falls Street.”

In other words, don’t ask for help with your $70 million dollar project because we already planted a few trees on your street and hired a couple rock bands to play in the summer. That’s enough for you, mister!

For the record, let’s just note that DiCienzo has a lot of experience and runs several successful businesses on both sides of Niagara Falls. Here’s list of his successes:

 

RESORTS & HOTELS

Sheraton At The Falls

Days Inn At The Falls

JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa

ENTERTAINMENT

The Reef Beach Club & Pool

At the Falls Arcade

Rainforest Cafe

JW Marriott the Rosseau Recreation

RESTAURANTS

Rainforest Cafe

TGI Fridays

Starbucks

Niagara American Grill

Sweet Treats

The Muskoka Chophouse

Teca

Lakes

Cottages

The Deck

 

The point is that the DiCienzo’s have proven themselves as developers that follow through with their commitments, create jobs, grow the tax base and create memorable experiences for their guests. As a tourist destination that’s the kind of business people the City of Niagara Falls should be championing for not complaining about.

The $70 million proposal calls for luxury hotel rooms and a waterpark. The hotel would include a rooftop bar, infinity pool overlooking the casino, a celebrity restaurant and bar, along with meeting space and a fitness club.

The water park would have 12 slides, including the “Devil’s Hole” drop slide, which would take riders through the “Aqua-drop launch capsule,” where the floor drops out and a person would fall 250 feet in zero gravity into the “Devil’s Hole Bowl.”

There would be a 3,000-gallon shark tank in the oasis area of the water park called “The Reef Beach Club.” Also included would be a “tropical salt water lagoon” stocked with exotic fish, two hot tubs and changing rooms. Amenities in the “Devil Falls” section would include a 1,000-gallon tipping bucket and adventure course.

The company said it “looks forward to the opportunity to sit down and continue to negotiate the $70 million development” which it said would create 165 full-time jobs, add 108,000 additional room nights and generate about $6.5 million in annual tax revenue.

If people like councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti and mayor Paul Dyster refuse support DiCienzo while at the same time hoist up failures like Mark Hamister then Niagara Falls will always remain stuck in its mud pit of bad politics.

 

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