Niagara Gazette — I had a conversation with Mark Hamister the other day.
He wants to build a $25 million hotel at 310 Rainbow Blvd.
There used to be a tethered helium balloon at the site. Today it’s a parking lot. And it may stay that way if the city council doesn’t find a way to approve the deal.
Because there’s been a lot of talk in the community about his company’s stalled hotel project, I put in a call to Hamister and asked to talk to him about the deal. He agreed.
During our conversation in the Amherst headquarters of the Hamister Group, he described how he came to the project at the suggestion of his son, Daniel, head of his company’s acquisitions. Daniel thought the Hamister Group could help fill the city’s need for higher-end hotels, and his father agreed. But, Hamister said many of his developer friends and others asked him why he would want to do business in Niagara Falls, a nod to the city’s unfortunate reputation for being a difficult place to do business.
The Hamisters dismissed the critics and moved forward.
Mark Hamister thought negotiations were done when his proposal for a mixed-use building with hotel, apartments, retail space was accepted by all five members of the city council in February.
However, when the development agreement came before the city council recently, three members expressed concern the city was giving away the lot too cheaply. While the city had originally offered the land for free, the deal proposed by Hamister included $100,000 for land.
One can only imagine that the Hamisters heard more than one “I told you so.”
Hamister said had he known upfront that council members wanted more money for the land — such as the $2 million being suggested now — he would have not submitted a proposal for the hotel project in the first place. They had a duty to say that up front, he said of concerns the land was being given away too cheaply.
“I’m still old school,” he told me. “When you shake someone’s hand, the negotiations are done.”
That said, he was unfailingly polite about the concerns expressed by the city council majority — Chairman Glenn Choolokian and colleagues Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson — who have said that the deal requires additional scrutiny and may not be as great as initially advertised.
“I have no reason to believe any of the three councilmen involved are anything but honorable,” Hamister said.
On the other hand, he said, in his 37 years of business, he has never experienced anything like the treatment he’s currently receiving from the council.
A press release from the city council majority on Tuesday indicated that the trio of council members may be willing to talk about moving ahead. Hamister is willing to wait — for a while.
“I’ve told all the parties that if they need me or my son, we’re still available,” he said. “And to please solve this in the next two months.”
I was there in February when the Hamister Group was named preferred developer by the city and the state’s USA Niagara Development Corp. But, prior to our meeting this week, I went online to see what the Hamister Group has been up to lately.
Hmmm. Let’s see. Hamister, who owns several nursing homes, including Brompton Heights in Williamsville, was named to Business First’s list of top 50 health care innovators. That paper also named Hamister as a top 50 influential leaders and his company as one of the top places to work in 2012.
The group, which also owns nine hotels in Pennstylvania, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, is hard at work on the renovation of a 20-story Tishman Building in downtown Buffalo, which will include a hotel, apartments and office space. Plans for the historic building moved seamlessly through Buffalo City Hall, according to Hamister, and are on schedule for a 2014 opening.
If the Rainbow Boulevard deal fails and the land goes back on the market, I asked Hamister if he would try again to build in Niagara Falls. He said, firmly, he would not.
“To have them dishonor an agreement and to treat me as if I’m trying to steal this property, I’d rather develop elsewhere,” he said.
He was, however, pleased by the support he’s getting from so many people in Niagara Falls, saying “Sixty or seventy people we don’t know reached out to us and said ‘please be patient, we want you here.’ “
So the deal is not dead in the water. But if it does die, many believe the city will feel the impact. Developers, like professionals in all other walks of life, talk amongst themselves.
If Hamister doesn’t come back, the city may risk losing more than a hotel.
It may risk losing a whole lot of his friends.
Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.Contact Features Editor Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.