An interview with Sam Fruscione: Correct about phony Hamister deal




touma fruscione

Sam Fruscione was right after all…..

It was the summer of 2013, almost three years ago, and the city of Niagara Falls was in the midst of a crisis. According to the Buffalo television stations and local newspapers quoting Mayor Paul Dyster, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, one man was standing in the way on an economic revitalization that would turn the city around once and for all.

That man, comically enough, it seems now, was popular former city Council chairman Sam Fruscione.

The affable Fruscione had served on the Council for years, providing the leadership for a dissident majority that questioned Dyster administration initiatives and fought against the mayor’s annual tax increases. Along with former councilmen Bob Anderson and Glenn Choolokian, Fruscione provided effective opposition.

But in 2013, he was running for reelection. And although he had often been the top vote getter in his previous reelection bids, there was absolutely no way to predict what lay ahead in that crazy year.

Mark Hamister, a Buffalo nursing home operator and major campaign contributor, proposed building a grand hotel in downtown Niagara Falls. Dyster, Cuomo, Gillibrand and other politicians who had benefitted from Hamister’s largess quickly got behind the project.

Hamister had never built a hotel before but the media was quickly filled with stories of his “transformational” project. “It [Hamister hotel] could help turn the tide of development in Niagara Falls,” the governor said.

There was only one problem. Fruscione, Choolokian and Anderson wanted some assurance that Hamister actually had the money to do what he said he was going to do. All hell broke loose.

Choolokian and Anderson’s seats were safe that year but Fruscione’s was up for grabs. And Andrew Touma, cousin of Dyster campaign manager Craig Touma, was put up as a replacement for Fruscione, one who would not stand in the way of an important development like the Hamister hotel.

For his part, Hamister threatened to walk away from the deal because of Fruscione’s intransigence. It was imperative that Council approve the deal so that construction could begin by the early spring of 2014, he said.

The campaign against Fruscione was unprecedented. Never before in the history of Niagara Falls City Council races had the governor played a role, much less Gillibrand and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who also endorsed Touma.

The media campaign was unrelenting, and mailers and robocalls went beyond simply criticizing Fruscione for his stand on the Hamister hotel, they went so far as to accuse him of being sympathetic to the Mafia!

The campaign was effective and he lost the primary to Touma.

Now, nearly 28 months later, the Hamister hotel has turned out to be what Fruscione and the Niagara Falls Reporter said it was in the first place – Smoke and mirrors. Now Dyster and other vocal supporters have all but admitted that Hamister didn’t have the money to do the project after all, although they stop short of saying that Fruscione was right.

While the Hamister project failed to accomplish its alleged goal of building a hotel it did manage to achieve what most political observers believe was its real, but hidden, intent: driving two term councilman and Paul Dyster nemesis, Sam Fruscione from office. The Reporter recently spent time with the always good humored school teacher as we posed a few questions in this exclusive interview.

Q: Let’s cut to the chase:  What about the Hamister project?

A: The Hamister deal was never meant to happen. It was a campaign stunt to do two things: put me out of office and put [Council members Chalre] Walker, [Kristen] Grandinetti, and [Andrew] Touma into office. Plain and simple. I saw that and I questioned the validity of the land transfer and contract drawn by the city with Mr. Hamister. And because of that the mayor and governor – the governor actually did a robo call slamming me if you remember – joined forces with the City Democratic Committee and I was politically smeared out of office. So here the city sits, close to three years later, and still no hotel. Not so much as a shovelful of dirt turned over. The project should be looked at from top to bottom. The residents deserve an answer to the entire affair.

Q: How do you rate the economic development efforts of the Dyster administration?
A: The new hotels downtown have been built not due to the administration but in spite of the administration. The overflow from Canada, our own tourism traffic and extra exposure due to the casino have caused the new hotels. And that’s a good thing. The new hotels and motels in LaSalle are directly due to the growth of the airport. And the administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the airport growth because Mayor Dyster very jealously saw the airport project as a George Maziarz project. Aside from the hotels there’s virtually no private investment downtown. If the city grants and loans were withdrawn from Third Street the businesses there would disappear. The street is virtually government subsidized. There’s low income subsidized housing on Walnut Avenue that’s being claimed as a great success and South Junior is going to be turned into subsidized housing. You can’t call this economic development And Hamister? Well, I answered that already.


Original drawing of the proposed Hamister hotel.

Q: Two words, train station. Care to respond?

A: I have two words of my own, ‘costly mistake.’ When was the last time you or anyone you know took a train anywhere? Do families vacation like that? Do mom and dad take the kids and their luggage and “hop aboard” the train to Disney, to Cooperstown, to Corning or Las Vegas? Time and again I asked Mayor Dyster and his planner Tom DeSantis how they intended  to pay for day to day operation of the building and they had no answers. None, zero. How is that possible? Yet it’s being built. We have a broken budget, casino revenue is essentially gone, a State Restructuring Board is going to be taking over and yet a new, unsupported, $45 million train station is set to open. What’s going on here? I’m not even going to mention the Underground Railroad Interpretive Center next door to the train station that’s tied up with a lawsuit and was supposed to have opened its doors five years ago.

Q: What is the single greatest mistake that the Dyster administration made in the past eight years?

A: That’s an easy one to point out, the handling of the casino revenue. Here we were with an annual city minimum of more than $20,000,000 in casino money and yet we’re now running a $65 million debt and $7.6 million budget deficit! That’s incredible and yet I don’t see where city hall – the elected officials or employees charged with management – is the the least bit concerned. Raises still go to department heads, stipends, overtime, consulting contracts, endless work change orders and casino money pushed out the door by the millions as if the dollars were being printed in Mayor Dyster’s office. Where’s the media editorials? The outraged voters? The state intervention?

Q: Is there a return to the world of politics in your future?

A: I enjoy being away from it. I do miss the sense of doing good and of trying to move the city forward, but the back biting and small mindedness are things that I’m happy to have left behind. I am intrigued a little bit at the thought of serving on a state level someday. Maybe the Assembly. John Ceretto’s seat is open next year, you never know.

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