By Mike Hudson;
Nearly three years ago, in August 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to town to announce a “transformational” $150 million project known as Wonderfalls Resort.
Uniland Development and Delaware North would partner to build the project he said, which called for a 15-story tower, 300 hotel rooms, an indoor water park, upscale restaurants and boutiques and a daredevil attraction that officials have said would involve tightrope walker Nik Wallenda all appended to the largely unused portion of the Rainbow Centre Mall, now owned by the city.
Empire State’s Sam Hoyt, former USA Niagara head Chris Schoepflin and Mayor Paul Dyster were all on hand to provide sketchy details about the proposal.
The state said it would provide up to $75 million in taxpayer subsidies to get the thing built as part of Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” program, an initiative that has since come under scrutiny by the federal government, which has indicted eight individuals in connection with bid rigging and bribery, including officers of the LP Ciminelli construction company here and Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo.
But since the gala announcement, state and local officials have said nothing about the proposal. Until this week. And the briefing given by Uniland officials to the city Council was most likely prompted by a media blitz conducted by Michael DiCienzo, the Canadian hotelier whose company owns the Sheraton and Days Inn here.
DiCienzo has offered up a $70 million dollar proposal to add six additional floors to the Sheraton with 200 oversized four-star suites on top of his existing hotel, and to construct a new indoor water park on a parcel behind the hotel, which is located at Third and Old Falls Street.
But despite the fact that Dicienzo has a proven track record of developing both hotels and water parks, his proposal has fallen on deaf ears, both at City Hall and the offices of Niagara USA Development.
“We really want this to happen, but we’re looking for some assistance like other developers are getting,” he said. “Generally they provide assistance in the neighborhood of ten to 20 percent of the project. That’s been pretty much typically what they have done in the past with other developers.”
But state officials have shown no interest.
“The state is saying it can’t provide assistance because our project would be competing with a state assisted property nearby,” he said.
DiCienzo was referring to Wonderfalls.
While developers like Uniland and Delaware North and Mark Hamister, who was given millions in tax breaks, loans and grants to build a hotel right across the street from the proposed Wonderfalls Resort.
The principles of those companies have donated heavily to the Cuomo campaign, and DiCienzo has not.
“That’s probably the reason, in part why we are in this predicament,” said DiCienzo. “But we should put everything aside and look at what is right for the market and the people in the market.”
Whether or not DiCienzo’s proposal and suspicions were responsible for it or not, Uniland’s presentation before City Council this week was hardly encouraging. Probably the biggest difference between the 2014 proposal and now is that Delaware North is no longer a part of the project, a result of a bitter and acrimonious dispute between the to companies over a separate project in Buffalo that led to lawsuits being filed.
But Uniland Senior Development Manager Kellena Kane preferred to be upbeat.
“Our concept has also evolved,” she told Council members. “We really see it as fulfilling a niche market, not only a kids-only water park, but really trying to appeal to families and adult-only groups of all ages.”
Negotiations over an incentive package, and the due diligence that will define the project’s scope, remain ongoing, she added.
In a prepared statement, Empire State Development said the project is, well, complicated.
“A project of this size, scale and complexity requires extensive due diligence to ensure that it will be a success for all parties,” the statement read. “Uniland has been working steadfastly on project requirements such as site analysis, geo-technical investigation, structural and seismic study, environmental report, design refinement and market analysis.
“We are committed to this process in order to deliver the best tourist destination for the site.”
And for his part, Dyster did what he does best — Act as a cheerleader for the state.
“A large amount of work has been done, but none of it is the sort of thing that results in a major announcement,” Dyster told the Niagara Gazette. “I have heard they have faced some engineering-related challenges trying to get all the programmatic elements into the space.”
“We’re very, very excited about this project moving forward,” he added. “It has the potential to be transformational for downtown.”
The twists and turns of the Wonderfalls resort project, are immediately familiar to anyone who followed the saga of the Hamister hotel project here.
The delays, the long silences followed by minor announcements in answer to DiCienzo’s criticism and final offer to build the hotel for half of what nursing home operator and political gadfly Mark Hamister said it would cost and the final massive injection of taxpayer dollars into the project that allowed Cuomo, Dyster and Empire State Development provide a likely blueprint for what might happen with Wonderfalls.
That’s bad news for the taxpayers of the state, bad news for anyone interested in good government and possibly bad news for those involved in the projects, should the scope of the federal probe into the Buffalo Billion program widen.
The total taxpayer funded subsidy to the Hamister hotel project has yet to be publicly announced. But somehow, after years of delays and rejection by legitimate commercial lending institutions, he suddenly came up with the cash to go ahead with the project.
Will the same thing happen with Uniland’s Wonderfalls?
And why is it that DiCienzo, who doesn’t make political contributions here, is continually rejected by state and city officials despite his proven track record when Hamister, Uniland and Delaware North benefit from millions in taxpayer subsidies?
Can anyone say quid pro quo?