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Given Hamister's Actions in Sabres' Bid, Lawmakers Have Every Right to Ask Questions

By Tony Farina

Mark Hamister talks big, but will he deliver.

A fancy picture is not quite the same thing as a real live hotel.

If people think that Mark Hamister is a knight in shining armor who wants to ride into Niagara Falls and rescue the city from its failed development legacy, you might want to think again.

Much has been made of Hamister’s $25-million planned hotel development on Rainbow Blvd., which would be heavily subsidized by public money and built on property the city would practically give away for $100,000 as its “contribution” to the deal.

The three-member majority on the Niagara Falls City Council has temporarily blocked the sale, and you would think they had betrayed all the hopes and dreams of everyone who wants a better future for the cataract city, that in the eyes of many rests solely on giving Hamister what he wants when he wants it.

It would seem the council majority has good reason to dig a little deeper into the agreement negotiated with Hamister by the state (USA Niagara) and the Dyster administration, given Hamister’s much-hyped bid to buy the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres back in 2002-03 that fell apart when he and his partner, Todd Berman, couldn’t negotiate up to $40 million in public assistance from state, county, and city governments.

In early February of 2003, a frustrated Hamister suspended his Sabres’ bid after his partner, Todd Berman, pulled out. A statement released by his partner’s firm, Chartwell Investments, blamed the lack of public assistance for “reducing the attractiveness” of this investment. In other words, they had been banking on public money to buy the team, and when that didn’t materialize, they backed out.

In a story that was headlined “Mark ‘Pinocchio’ Hamister,” the Buffalo newspaper Artvoice in December of 2002 had minced no words in calling out Hamister for trying to put the squeeze on for public financing by warning that “time was running out” to get the deal done.

The article by Jaime Moses begins this way: “Wow! Could anyone possibly swallow the pile of horse manure being shoveled on us by Mark Hamister and the so-called “reporters” at the Buffalo News?”

Sound a bit familiar to what’s going on in Niagara Falls these days?

Moses went on in his 2002 story to write that Hamister won a bidding war against self-made billionaire Tom Golisano and then disclosed “that he expected taxpayers to cover a major portion of his business plan. BAD IDEA! As chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Hamister should have been luring people with fresh new money into our market, not bidding against them.”

In the case of Niagara Falls, Hamister won a mostly secret RFP process to develop the prime 310 Rainbow Blvd. parcel that was appraised as having a market value of $1.53 million as recently as 2012.

And like in the failed Sabres’ bid, there are warnings now that time is running out and that Hamister won’t wait forever to “save” the city, and if the deal doesn’t win council approval shortly, he may walk.

A similar tactic was used by Hamister in 2002, according to Moses’ story in Artvoice. Moses wrote, in part, that one technique used by certain types to push their agenda is “to pressure the sucker that ‘time is running out’ and you must decide immediately. Now! DO IT NOW!!! Don’t you want this team? You love the Sabres, don’t you? HURRY, HURRY, THIS DEAL WON’T LAST!!"

Moses concluded that Hamister, as chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, responded to Buffalo’s poor ranking as a metro area in terms of competitive business, “by getting himself into a bidding war against Rochester billionaire Golisano to buy the Sabres. Now he wants taxpayers to help him own the team, which also helps his powerbroker friends keep Golisano out of Buffalo. If we lose the Sabres, the blame will be laid on your shoulders, but actually only one man will be to blame, Hamister.

Of course, after Hamister bailed out, Golisano did come in and “save” the team for Buffalo, and the public did not lose the Sabres as the Hamister crowd-including media-- had warned.

In the case of Niagara Falls, Hamister also engaged in a bidding war with several other developers who submitted proposals for the Rainbow site, but we really don’t know the details of any of the bids except Hamister’s.

Hamister will get $2.75 million from USA Niagara, a 10-year tax break under a county PILOT, and other economic (sales tax) incentives to build his hotel-apartment-retail project. And of course, he will pay only $100,000 under the proposed agreement for the land and he has said he wants to stick to the deal that was negotiated and not re-negotiate it now. In other words, give him what he wants or else.

Given Hamister’s history, is it wrong for the three-member council majority to take a second look at the land “giveaway” and the other issues in the vague language in the proposed agreement that raise questions about whether Hamister is really committed to developing what he says he will develop?

As lawmakers did with the “disaster” budget last December that would have raised property taxes in Niagara Falls by 8.3 percent, a closer look is warranted before signing away the store and their oversight responsibilities to the taxpayers of the city.

Hamister can rant and rave and threaten to walk out if he doesn’t get his way. But that doesn’t mean another developer (as Golisano did) wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to come to Niagara Falls and build something that would be just as exciting as the Hamister project and might not require that same public subsidy contained in Hamister’s plan.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be threatened to go along with the deal or risk losing it. If they can work through their concerns with the Hamister project, then it might be a good deal. If they can’t, Hamister isn’t the only developer in town who can build a hotel. Put out another RFP and start over.



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

AUG 13, 2013