BY TONY FARINA
It was nearly three years ago that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster rammed the controversial Hamister Hotel project down the throats of a hesitant city council, telling anyone who would listen as an election approached that the Hamister deal was pretty much do-or-die for the future of downtown redevelopment and must be approved.
Well, after a long period of false starts and broken promises, all shrouded in “official” secrecy for lack of a better description, Cuomo announced on Tuesday that plans to build the $35 million Hyatt Place Hotel are at last underway because the Hamister Group has secured financing and is finally moving forward.
You could almost sense the relief coming from the Cuomo camp given the circus of broken promises that followed all the hype in 2013 when the state led the charge to approve the deal for the politically-connected Buffalo developer who won development rights without the financing piece in place as we now know nearly three years later.
When a relieved Council President Andrew Touma called on Wednesday to say the Hamister deal “was done,” I mistakenly thought he meant it was officially dead given the history. But he quickly said “no, he is going to build the hotel,” adding he had been told so by the Dyster Administration.
Indeed, squeezed into the governor’s announcement Wednesday that plans were moving forward was a statement from Dyster who was quoted as saying “today’s long anticipated announcement of the start of this project represents a milestone in the continued development of down Niagara Falls. I would like to thank Gov. Cuomo and Empire State Development for their persistent focus in seeing this project through to a positive outcome.”
Dyster is right about one thing, the “long anticipated announcement,” and as for the “focus” of state officials to see the project through, one might ask what choice did they have? Admit they were wrong three years ago or stick with Hamister even though he didn’t have the financing to move forward? And as usual with government spending, there were very few details contained in the governor’s announcement of where Hamister finally found the financing to move forward and whether the state came up with even more money to save the pet project.
According to the announcement, the Hamister Group will have a groundbreaking at 310 Rainbow Blvd. later this month with construction anticipated to take 15 months, meaning if all goes well it might be ready for visitors sometime late next year or early 2018. That would be more than four years after it was hailed as a make-or-break project that must start immediately to save downtown.
In a statement, Mark Hamister said that without the direct assistance of the governor, this project would not be a reality today. Maybe eventually we’ll learn how much “direct assistance” the governor provided to save the Hamister project after local and state officials have spent nearly three years taking cover on why it hadn’t moved forward.
The state had already boosted the public subsidy to Hamister to $3.85 million (up from the original $2.75 million), and tax breaks from Niagara County total $4.25 million for the next 10 years. Is there more? We don’t know from Wednesday’s announcement, but miraculously Hamister came up with the money when just a few weeks ago financial sources told us he was $6 million short.