It’s hard to know exactly what happened in Niagara Falls Thursday that caused a suicidal faction of the City Council to back away from its efforts to block a promising development, but this much is certain: It involved Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has demonstrated a useful ability to make things happen.
The story is as frustrating as it is typical in Niagara Falls, where foolishness runs a penny a pound. Three members of the City Council – Council Chairman Glenn A. Choolokian and Councilmen Samuel F. Fruscione and Robert A. Anderson Jr. – decided to jam a stick in the spokes of a proposed $25 million hotel project, demanding money from Buffalo developer Mark Hamister before they would sign off on the deal.
The city acquired the land at 310 Rainbow Blvd. for free as part of the deal that allowed for the creation of the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. An agreement was later struck for the Hamister Group to build a $25.3 million five-story building that would include a hotel, apartments and retail space. Just as the city paid nothing for the land, Hamister was also going to be given the land, although that agreement was later sweetened to $100,000.
But, in July, the three blind mice balked, saying the city should get $1.5 million to $2 million for land that it got for nothing. Previously, when USA Niagara Development Corp. received seven proposals for developing the site, the most generous offer for the land was $216,000 – and that was for a project whose backers wanted more public funding. This was a stickup.
Adding grievous insult to injury, an anonymous flier circulated in the city screaming that “ ‘Developer’ Mark Hamister is running a con game on the city of Niagara Falls … and he just got caught!” The flier went on to praise Fruscione – who is facing a primary election on Tuesday – for “fighting for us in Niagara Falls.”
Fighting for Niagara Falls by sabotaging an important project, and endorsing a flier that all but libels an honorable Western New York developer. It was, as Hamister said, despicable – sufficiently so for him to announce that he had 90 percent decided to abandon the project, when Cuomo intervened on Thursday.
Few would have blamed Hamister for backing out. Why build in a city with a City Council this incompetent when other areas would welcome him with open arms? What is more, the Council clowns are likely to be an ongoing source of lunacy, assuming voters don’t decide to make some changes.
But, crediting Cuomo’s intervention, Hamister is sticking with his project while he sees what the governor is able to broker. One theory is that Cuomo will devote a slice of the Buffalo Billion to placate the three stooges and get the project back on track. It would be an unfortunate use of that money, but worth it for a tourist city that was barren of development for decades.
Still, that doesn’t explain why this happened. Fruscione, Choolokian and Anderson may pitch their crazy stand as meant to benefit taxpayers, but it doesn’t. It was an irresponsible gambit that threatened a project they should have seen as important.
The only plausible explanation, so far, is that it was part of a destructive Niagara Falls tradition in which members of the Council regard it as their duty to thwart projects that could benefit the reputation of the mayor. It is a sadly plausible theory that requires voters to understand that they are second in line – if that – to Council members’ need to obstruct, whether that is good for the city they represent or bad.