NIAGARA FALLS – The biggest story of the year in Niagara Falls was the biggest public controversy in the city, including in both the political and business worlds.
The 2½-month flap on the City Council that held up a proposed $25 million downtown development project grabbed the public’s attention and brought focus on a place already known for its dysfunction.
While the Hamister Group is on track to start construction on a five-story hotel, apartment and retail building on Rainbow Boulevard next year, it wasn’t easy getting to where things are now, and it almost didn’t happen at all.
To get a better understanding of the situation, it’s best to begin in early 2012, when the City Council – comprising then the same members who were there this summer – voted to designate the Hamister Group as the preferred developer for the parcel at 310 Rainbow Blvd.
Sixteen months later in the summer of 2013 – after plans progressed for the project and it was time for the Council to vote on selling the land and approving a contract for the deal with Hamister – three Council members put off acting on the matter.
Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian, Councilman Samuel F. Fruscione and Councilman Robert A. Anderson Jr., who often voted together on key issues and were united in opposition to some proposals from Mayor Paul A. Dyster, said they were looking out for taxpayers. They characterized the situation as one that lacked transparency and raised concerns about the sale price of the land.
In early September, Dyster said the Council majority was, at best, stalling in the middle of the dispute.
“It seems to me as quickly as one objection can be answered, another objection is raised,” Dyster said Sept. 3.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo got involved to reach an end to the dispute, with Anderson meeting Sam Hoyt, the regional president of Empire State Development, to discuss his concerns.
So the development project got its approval from the Council on Sept., 16, but not before a Democratic primary election in the race for Council.
Fruscione, a member of the Council majority who has served two terms on the Council, came in last in a four-way race and lost the Democratic line for the general election.
Fruscione blamed the loss, in part, on “character assassination on my ethnicity.”
Though he remained on the ballot for the general election with minor lines, Fruscione finished last again, with newcomer Andrew P. Touma grabbing one of the three contested seats, and incumbents Charles A. Walker and Kristen M. Grandinetti winning another term.
For the mayor, Touma’s election means there will be three lawmakers on the Council who appear more willing to work with him.
Some other noteworthy stories from this year:
• A package of $40 million in improvements at Niagara Falls State Park that began earlier this year will run through the end of 2017.
• The Maid of the Mist Corp. ended its business on the Canadian side of the border. Amid lawsuits, the company was able to maintain its boat tour business on the American side of the Falls after building a $30 million boat storage facility in the Niagara Gorge.
• A July rainstorm caused millions of dollars in damage to the city’s sewer plant.
• The wives of two Niagara Falls School Board members got jobs with the school district, an organization often faced with allegations of nepotism.