A series of discussions last week with a high-ranking state economic development official have convinced one of three members of the Niagara Falls City Council majority to reverse course on the stalled $25 million hotel project.
During a press conference Monday morning at Conference Center Niagara Falls, Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. announced plans to push for approval of a tabled agreement to allow Buffalo developer Mark Hamister to build a hotel on city owned land located at 310 Rainbow Blvd.
Anderson, who has for weeks joined Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Sam Fruscione in questioning elements of the hotel proposal, credited his change of heart to a series of conversations he had late last week with Sam Hoyt, the former state assemblyman who was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to lead state economic development efforts in Western New York, including Niagara Falls.
After being assured by Hoyt that several of his concerns about the Hamister deal would ultimately be addressed, Anderson said he has decided to put his support behind it. It is now expected Anderson will join fellow city lawmakers Kristen Grandinetti and Charles Walker in removing the item from the table and voting to approve it during tonight's council meeting.
"Those areas were resolved within the last 72 hours and it makes me feel good to know that now we can pull this item off the table and move forward," Anderson said.
Anderson said Hoyt and his office agreed to his request for assurances that Hamister will use laborers from Niagara Falls and Niagara County as the project proceeds. He said the state also agreed to make sure Hamister has a performance bond in place before construction starts, adding that he believes the item will better protect the city and state's interests should the developer experience any setbacks.
Also, Anderson said he was told a "reverter clause," which has been called into question by majority members for weeks, is no longer part of the final deal. Majority members had expressed concern that with the reverter the city could find itself on the hook for Hamister's debts if the developer was unable to complete the project for whatever reason.
"My interest was to protect all of us, all of us, all of us and move forward," Anderson said.
Hoyt also indicated that the project will not be eligible for benefits under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Tax-Free NY initiative which provides tax incentives to companies operating on and near college campuses. Some critics of the Hamister deal had suggested the hotel would be eligible for tax-free benefits under the program as a result of the project's proximity to the Niagara Falls Culinary Arts Institute, which is operated by Niagara County Community College.
Anderson's reversal follows Tuesday's primary in which Fruscione, one of Anderson's colleagues on the council majority, found himself the odd man out in a four-candidate race for three available Democratic Party positions on the ballot for the upcoming fall election. Fruscione remains in the fall election and will appear on two minor party lines.
Anderson insisted the outcome of Tuesday's vote had nothing to do with his decision. He also said he had not contact with either Fruscione or Choolokian prior to making the move.
In the end, he said, it was as simple as getting a telephone call from someone in a position of authority at the state who could answer his questions and address his concerns. Up until Hoyt contacted him last Thursday, Anderson said he personally had no such interaction with anyone from the state level.
"No one has called to say 'Bob, could you help us, would you give us some information?' Nothing, until this happened. That's all," Anderson said.
Hoyt backed Anderson's assessment of the situation, admitting that he should have reached out directly to the councilman sooner.
"There were communications with other members of the council, but I never spoke directly to Mr. Anderson and that was my mistake," Hoyt said.
"I learned a lesson here: Direct communication with somebody is the best way to do business," Hoyt added. "I chose to communicate with a bloc rather than an individual. Once I met this individual, I realized that he was open-minded and genuinely wanted to protect the interests of his constituents and we were able to move forward."
Both Hoyt and Anderson expressed confidence that the Hamister agreement will be approved tonight and the project will ultimately move forward. Hoyt said he has received every indication that Hamister himself is still interested in building the hotel as promised.
"He was thrilled that we will be voting on this initiative and was excited to know that Mr. Anderson will be supportive of it," he said.
State officials characterized the Hamister hotel project as the "first non-casino new development" of its scale in more than 40 years in downtown Niagara Falls. The proposal calls for construction of a 110-room, upscale hotel as well as 24 market-rate residential rental apartments and up to 8,000-square-feet of ground-level retail space. Officials estimate the project will generate 200 to 300 direct, indirect and induced jobs during construction and 70 permanent jobs once completed.
Both Hoyt and Anderson expressed confidence that with the controversy behind it, the Hamister hotel will eventually be built and will help to attract additional development into the downtown area.
"I'm very optimistic," Anderson said. "Like I said, I try to stay positive my entire life, regardless of the entire situation."