NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. - Niagara Falls officials are doing all they can to keep the Hamister hotel proposal from falling apart.
Wednesday night, 2 On Your Side reported that Hamister was planning a news conference for Thursday afternoon, where he would announce he was pulling the plug on his proposal to develop a downtown lot into a $25 million hotel.
2 On Your Side has since learned that Hamister told Niagara Falls leaders late Wednesday afternoon about his plan to withdraw. After that, several local leaders started talking to the Hamister group, to try to convince them to reconsider. It is unclear if Hamister is still going to withdraw his proposal or not, but he was at least convinced to cancel his planned news conference.
Mayor Paul Dyster said the developer reached out to his office Wednesday to request a meeting with him and USA Niagara President Chris Schoepflin. Dyster told 2 On Your Side Thursday morning he will reach out to the developer to try and arrange that meeting. "I can't say I'm relieved", said Dyster about the cancellation of today's planned news conference, "because there's still no resolution, but at least the project's not dead."
When asked if Governor Cuomo had gotten involved in discussions to convince Hamister to reconsider, Dyster had no comment, referring the question to the Governor's office. "I will say that I was up very late last night and very early this morning."
On Thursday morning, State Senator George Maziarz told Two On your Side that he had spoken with Hamister about keeping the hotel project on track. Maziarz also said he plans on speaking with Governor Cuomo.
The hotel, estimated to bring tens of millions of dollars in economic development to the long-struggling Falls, would have been funded entirely by Hamister and state money. The city of Niagara Falls received the land as a gift, and under an original agreement, Hamister would have paid $100,000 in exchange for the parcel. It is currently a parking lot.
The project stalled in early July, however, when the city council majority first voted to table the deal due to concerns about the value of the land. Chairman Glenn Choolokian, along with Sam Fruscione and Robert Anderson, Jr., said they believed the parcel was worth more than $1 million and wanted to renegotiate. After the majority once again tabled the project at the final council meeting before the August recess, Hamister said he would be "history" if they wanted him to pay more money for the land, citing a "good faith" agreement he'd made earlier in the year. During the past five weeks, the three council members have expanded their criticisms of the Hamister deal, including that the resolution gives too much power to the mayor, that a "reverter clause" gives too much power to Hamister and, most recently, that they wouldn't move forward with the project unless Hamister provided financial statements to the council. This week, a mailer promoting Fruscione's re-election campaign accused Hamister of "running a con game" on the city.
Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti, who along with councilman Charles Walker has fought for the proposal for the past two months, said there has been "no basis" to the council majority's arguments.
"It's absurd," Grandinetti said. "I do not understand the hesitation here. It almost feels like certain people are happy with the way things are here, that if we keep people down, we can be more powerful."
At Tuesday's council meeting, the city's legal counsel said he was still in discussions with the council majority regarding their concerns about the resolution.
"I work for the people of Niagara Falls, not Mark Hamister," Fruscione said. "Mr. Hamister needs to produce a letter of commitment to show us that he can actually complete the project. "
Dyster has pointed out that Hamister had already invested roughly $300,000 of his own money into the project. The Hamister Group currently owns hotels in Pittsburgh, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and Louisville.
"We're not talking about a mom-and-pop operation here," Grandinetti said. "This man is a well-respected developer."
As for the mailer, Dyster denounced it as another example of the Falls driving away a potential developer.
"All I can do," Dyster said, "is apologize for all the outrageous things that are being done."
The campaign literature also said there are "probably other con men out there who want to take advantage of Niagara Falls" and claimed Fruscione "refused to be bullied into approving a project until he got answers about how the project was to be financed."
It also used quotation marks around the word "Developer" when referencing Mark Hamister, claiming he "just got caught" as a con man.
"Show me the money, we'll do the deal," Fruscione said in August. "Until then, what are we gonna say?"