NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - There's a man in Western New York who wants to help spur the Falls' economy.
This man is willing to pay the majority of the $25 million needed to build a downtown hotel in a region infamous for its woeful economy. The state of New York will cover the rest of the money. The city will pay nothing. And under a previous agreement with the Niagara Falls City Council, this man would actually pay $100,000 to the city in exchange for the land to build a hotel. The city received the land as a gift, free of charge. Right now, it's a parking lot.
The man's name is Mark Hamister.
For about a year-and-a-half, he thought he'd made an offer the city couldn't refuse.
"It's a no-brainer," council member Kristen Grandinetti said. "It is, unquestionably, an amazing deal for us."
Except three of her fellow council members have suddenly changed their minds now.
With an estimated $40 million economic impact over the next decade in the palm of their hands, the five council members took a vote on Wednesday to untable the hotel project and place it on the agenda for possible approval. The first four members split 2-2.
It came down to Chairperson Glenn Choolokian.
"We're here to represent the taxpayers of Niagara Falls," Choolokian said, "and I vote 'no' to untable it."
For the record, that means the city council refused to take a vote on a project that would cost the city zero dollars and bring millions upon millions of dollars in tax revenue, job creation and other economic development. Not to mention an extra $100,000 for the land.
Except that's the issue here. The council majority now says it thinks the land is worth much more than $100,000 -- up to $2 million, in fact -- and it is refusing to sell the land to Hamister for less than what they think it's worth.
"Everybody knows that land is worth more than $100,000," Choolokian said.
Except Hamister negotiated for $100,000.
And he says he wouldn't give the city another dime.
"If they even want $300,000 or $400,000 for the land, then they need to find a new developer," Hamister said. "I am history."
Choolokian said he was misled during the original agreements and that he didn't know until very recently that the land was worth $2 million. That's a fact disputed by both Hamister and Grandinetti, but Choolokian said he's fielded "50 to 60 to 100 phone calls a week" from people telling him not to sell the land for $100,000.
"We're not in the business to fund people's projects or dreams," Choolokian said. "We're all for development, but the taxpayers can't afford to fund projects anymore."
Except they're not funding this project-- Hamister and the state of New York would. Choolokian said he's defending the taxpayers by asking for more revenue from the land, which of course would be used by the city for their benefit. So he's trying to renegotiate that original $100,000 agreement.
"That is not the deal I proposed," Hamister said. "And just as importantly, that's not the deal I negotiated in good faith."
"I do not renegotiate deals."
The project's not dead, though. When the council meets again after the summer, it could then untable the project and place it on the agenda.
"We're not killing the project," Choolokian said. "Time will tell."
Hamister said he'll stay patient during the next few months to see how the council proceeds. However, he made it clear that he will not move forward with the project if the council demands more money for the land.
"It breaks my heart," Grandinetti said. "This man's coming to the table with $22 million. That is unheard of here."
And he'll walk away from the table if the council continues its demands.