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By: Tony Farina
It appears the Hamister Group isn’t through squeezing Niagara Falls taxpayers out of every dime possible as the politically-connected Buffalo developer is looking for more tax breaks for his newly opened Hyatt Place Hotel at 310 Rainbow Blvd.
That’s the same hotel that was four years in the making after the governor and Mayor Paul Dyster pitched it to a hesitant city council, saying it was pretty much do-or-die for downtown redevelopment.
Well the verdict is still out on the impact of the 128-room hotel, but one thing is clear: developer Mark Hamister and his team are not through squeezing taxpayers, even though the city is facing a more than 13 million budget deficit next year in part because of the battle between the state and the Seneca Nation over slot revenue.
That’s the same state government that came up with a $3.85 million public subsidy for Hamister and helped put the developer over the top by helping to secure $25 million in construction funding in 2016 from Goldman Sachs for the project that at that point, despite all the hype, was dead in the water.
Now, Hamister is suing Niagara Falls to reduce the hotel’s assessment from $4.55 million to $2.37 million, claiming it is over assessed. That’s on top of the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) it received from Niagara County totaling $4.25 million over 10 years that kicked in last year when ground was finally broken.
And remember, the developer secured the original deal in a very secret bidding process and was able to buy the prime parcel back in 2013 from the city for a measly $100,000 because of all the pressure from the governor, supported by the city administration. And it soon became clear Hamister never had the funding in place to build the hotel even though that was one of the requirements in the RFP put out by the state.
That latest bid for more tax breaks for Hamister is not going over well with business-friendly Republican Councilman Chris Voccio.
While conceding that a business has every right to try and get a better deal on their assessment, Voccio believes it might be a case of enough is enough.
“They’ve gotten so many handouts from the taxpayers,” says Voccio. “It just smells bad.”
“It sure sends the wrong message to a city that is struggling,” says Council Chairman Andrew Touma. “It may be just a formality to try and cut their [already reduced] tax bill of more than $70,000 in half, but it doesn’t look good. I hope they back off.”
Daniel Hamister, the executive vice president of the Hamister Group, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the assessment reduction suit which is slated to be argued in Niagara County Court on Sept. 4.
No response from the Hamister Group is par for the course. I wrote dozens of stories about the Hamister Hotel project, and the state’s Empire State Development agency and the Hamister Group were consistent in keeping the public in the dark. I called it “official” secrecy, for lack of a better description.
Gov. Cuomo finally did announce in June of 2016 that after years of false starts and broken promises, Hamister was ready to move forward because financing had been secured. Cuomo didn’t say anything about where Hamister finally found the construction money and we didn’t learn about the Goldman Sachs lifeline until a few weeks later.
Taxpayers should brace themselves for another hit as Hamister has been able to get everything he wanted to build his do-or-die hotel right from the start.
For the record, the city administration will contest the bid by Hamister for a property assessment reduction and talks are ongoing, according to the tax office. Stay tuned.