By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Gov. Andrew Cuomo visited Niagara Falls on Thursday to celebrate the approval of a $25 million hotel project.
Cuomo and the project's developer, Mark Hamister, signed a ceremonial agreement in anticipation of the actual development agreement which is expected to be finalized by early October.
Cuomo called the proposed hotel, residential and retail building a “significant project” for the city, one that he believes could help turn the tide of development in Niagara Falls.
“There is a different dynamic and there is a different attitude and there is a different energy about Niagara Falls,” Cuomo said.
The project looked as though it may unravel in recent weeks as Hamister was prepared to walk away after three members of the city council – Chairman Glenn Choolokian, Councilman Sam Fruscione and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. – tabled a proposed development agreement on July 8. After several weeks in which council majority members questioned elements of the proposal, Hamister called a press conference on Sept. 6 where he planned to announce that he was walking away from the project. He decided to stay on after talking with Cuomo who promised to personally intervene to get the deal done.
Hamister described his experience in recent months as “extremely frustrating,” but said he was glad Cuomo called and convinced him to stick to it.
“I believe that we are standing here today celebrating the next phase of this project because of his personal time and his personal commitment to bringing the parties together for a good resolution,” Hamister said.
Hamister described being excited by the opportunity in the Falls and said he views his company's project as the next step in a new direction for the city.
“I believe this is the right time for Niagara Falls and I believe this is the right time for this project,” Hamister said.
Controversy surrounding the project reached a peak just days before the Sept. 10 primary when a mailer suggesting Hamister was attempting to run a "con game" with the project arrived at households in the city. The same mailer lauded Fruscione for taking a tough stance on the proposed development. Following the election, Fruscione found himself on the outside looking in as he failed to secure one of three Democratic Party lines on the ballot for the upcoming general election.
Days before the primary, a representative from the political action committee, the Western New York Progressive Caucus, admitted to the group's involvement in the printing and distribution of the flier. The Buffalo-based PAC counts among its donors Fruscione’s political ally and former chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee Steve Pigeon, State Sen. Tim Kennedy of Buffalo, and other Western New York businesses and business owners.
On Thursday, with the political attack and controversy behind them, Cuomo joked that Hamister “should be governor for one day” if he wanted to see just how brutal politics can be.
“Mr. Hamister, I can’t tell you how grateful we are that you gave us the benefit of the doubt and you hung in there with us,” Cuomo said. “Mr. Hamister got involved in a little bit of a political season you see. He will never run for office. I’ll tell you that much.”
The key project approval came on Monday when three of the city council's five members agreed to authorize it. The deciding vote came from Anderson who changed his position following discussions with Cuomo's appointee, Empire State Development Regional President Sam Hoyt. Hoyt was able to persuade Anderson to approve the project, meeting with him several times and visiting him at his home to provide assurances that his three main areas of concern about the proposal would be addressed in the final contract.
Anderson, along with Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti and Councilman Charles Walker - the two council members who supported the project from the beginning - voted to first remove the agreement from the table and then approve the proposed deal on Monday.Cuomo thanked the “enlightened” council members for their actions.
While walking towards a press gaggle after the event, Cuomo stopped to personally thank Anderson.
“You did a gutsy thing,” Cuomo said. “You did the right thing.”
Hamister Group, founded in 1977 by Mark Hamister, was selected as the preferred developer by the state’s local economic development arm, the USA Niagara Development Corp., as part of a state procurement process. The company's selection was unanimously approved by the city council in February of 2012.
Under the final agreement, Hamister will receive the parcel at 310 Rainbow Blvd., which was gifted to the city by Baltimore developer David Cordish in 2010. His company will also receive a $2.75 million state grant as part of an incentive package.
Mayor Paul Dyster, who has long supported the Hamister plan, said Cuomo has demonstrated a strong commitment to Niagara Falls and Western New York since taking office. Dyster praised Cuomo for brokering a deal that will allow Maid of the Mist to continue operations on the American side of the gorge and for helping to put an end to the gaming revenue dispute between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians.
“Those two agreements, as well as this one today, were the result of the governor’s inclusive style of bringing all parties to the table in order to deliver results for the people of the state,” Dyster said.
Dyster predicted the hotel project will help put the city back on track to being a leader in tourism.
“The Hamister hotel will reinforce Niagara Falls as a premier destination in the nation,” Dyster said.
State Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, said he handed Cuomo a note asking him to intervene in the stalled process when he came to Buffalo two weeks ago.
“In the next 48 hours this deal came together,” Maziarz said, thanking Cuomo for his involvement. Maziarz then pointed to a group of students from Niagara Falls High School that were in the audience and said such projects are important for ensuring that young people in Niagara Falls will have an opportunity to stay in their home town.
“Mark Hamister is going to give us a very great place to stay in the city of Niagara Falls,” Maziarz said. “I think our challenge, all of our challenge going forward, is to give Mark’s guests more to do in the city of Niagara Falls, more reasons to stay here even longer. That is the challenge of the future we have because it’s important to these Niagara Falls High School students that are here today.”
State Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, showered Cuomo with praise.
“Today’s visit by the governor is yet another sign that it’s a new day in Western New York everybody,” Ceretto said. “A new day.”
The project is a marker of the progress that will prevent young people in Western New York, like Ceretto’s daughter who moved south, from having to move away to find opportunity, he said.
“The Hamister announcement is yet another clear sign of the governor’s dedication to improving Western New York by capitalizing on our number one resource, Niagara Falls,” Ceretto said.
Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257