We have no idea what they are inhaling on the Niagara Falls City Council, but it must be something bad. The only other explanations are that the Council doesn’t know what it’s doing, or that it does and this is a shakedown.
Let’s start with some basics. Niagara Falls is a tourist city. A tourist city needs nice hotels and Niagara Falls doesn’t have enough of them. In 2011, as part of the deal to develop the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, a prime piece of land, at 310 Rainbow Blvd., was turned over to the city.
A deal was struck for the Hamister Group of Buffalo to construct a $25.3 million five-story building that would include a hotel, apartments and retail space. All would be healthy for this anemic city.
Under the original deal, Hamister was to pay nothing for the land, just as the city paid nothing for it. The deal was later sweetened to $100,000. But when it came time last week to vote to transfer the land to the Hamister Group, the City Council majority – Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian and Councilmen Samuel F. Fruscione and Robert A. Anderson Jr. – balked.
Choolokian now says the city should get $1.5 million to $2 million for land it got for free. As part of the genesis of this project, USA Niagara Development Corp. received seven proposals for the site. Among them, the most generous offer for this land was $216,000 – and that proposal also requested more public funding.
This is insane, but it’s also Niagara Falls. A respected, successful hotel developer wants to put a $25 million building on a prime but underused piece of land, and Choolokian & Co. are trying to hold him up for more.
What is more, the city already agreed to this deal. Then strapped for cash because of the casino dispute between the state and the Seneca Nation of Indians, Mayor Paul A. Dyster agreed to contribute land. “No one raised any issues back in 2012,” Dyster said.
But today, the bandits on the City Council want more – so much more that Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara, says it could “severely threaten” the project. That’s bad enough in a tourist city that has a hard time attracting development – or tourists – but it’s not even the worst of it.
If the City Council is willing to stick up this developer, why would any others want to risk doing business with so unreliable a partner? Trust matters. Honor is a real thing, the example of the Council majority notwithstanding. Choolokian can bray all he wants about standing up for taxpayers, but in the end he and his co-conspirators are threatening an agreed-upon project and playing chicken with the city’s reputation for honesty.
This is all too familiar in Niagara Falls. By rights, it should be one of the nation’s prime tourist cities, but instead it is a derelict and much of the blame for that can be traced to greed, incompetence and corruption in city government.
Some people never learn.