Hamister hotel project just a Hyatt? Developer announces even more delays

By Mike Hudson, The Niagara Falls Reporter

Nine months ago, the Hamister hotel deal was making headlines every day. It was urgent. It was the future of Niagara Falls.

The state approved plans to give the developer, Mark Hamister, $2.75 million of taxpayer money and the city chipped in by selling Hamister a piece of downtown property appraised at upwards of $1.5 million for the princely sum of $100,000.

But all that wasn’t enough said Mayor Paul Dyster and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Niagara Falls City Councilman Sam Fruscione was an impediment to development, they said. He had the nerve to ask why the city was selling off public property to a Buffalo developer with a spotty record for a fraction of its worth?

Hamister hopes to secure a Hyatt Place flag, a decidedly mid – scale hotel. This is what is going to save the city?

He must be defeated at the polls, they said.

And he was. Fruscione, an incumbent who previously had been a top vote-getter every time he ran for election, lost the Democratic Party primary last September to Andy Touma.

“We are going to try and stay patient for at least another month or two while the appropriate elected officials work out the issues that they have and advance questions,” Hamister said last summer. But questions were the last thing he wanted, and his patience didn’t last long.

Just prior to the primary, Hamister said his patience had run out. Either he was forging ahead with his bold plan or he was taking his ball and going home. Dyster and the governor were rattled.

Finally, a conversation with Cuomo produced results.

Hamister hopes to secure a Hyatt Place flag, a decidedly mid – scale hotel. This is what is going to save the city?

“We were within an hour of finalizing the decision to walk away when the governor called,” Hamister announced. “He made it clear to me that this project was important to his overall plan for the region and he would get personally involved to make sure it goes forward.”

Hamister had promised to build a $25 million luxury hotel complex using mostly his own money. Whether he has that much money, or ever had it, remains a matter of speculation since, with Fruscione’s loss, people generally stopped asking questions about the Hamister deal.

Meanwhile, the developer was painting a rosy picture and winning support from all three local television stations, the two daily newspapers, local and regional businessmen, and just about every politician on both sides of the aisle between here and Washington, D.C.

No expense would be spared, Hamister said, to make his little hotel different than all the other little hotels nearby. Somehow, the concept of a 110-room hotel in a neighborhood filled with 110-room hotels became integral to the future of the city.

“We’re not going to just put the banquet center on the first floor in a box,” Hamister said. “We’re going to put the banquet center on the roof with windows.”

Wow. On the roof of a five-story building. With windows!

The groundbreaking for this transformational project, as the mayor called it, was to have been held this spring. Then it got put off until this fall. And now it’s been put off until next year.

But it was all pretty urgent last September, just nine months ago.

The luxury hotel concept that was promised seems to have fallen by the wayside as well. Last week, local newspapers breathlessly reported that Hamister was in talks with the Hyatt hotel chain to lend its Hyatt Place banner to the smallish, 110-room hotel.

By no standard could the Hyatt Place be considered a luxury hotel. In fact, according to Hyatt’s own website, the chain’s luxury mark is the Hyatt Regency, and the Hyatt Place locations cater mostly to business travelers.

In fact, something called Business Travel News ranked it the top place to stay for those traveling on business.

So why would you put a business hotel a couple hundred yards away from Niagara Falls, where business people who aren’t working come for leisurely family vacations?

“We are currently finalizing a franchise agreement with Hyatt Place and hope the documents will be signed in the next few days,” said Hamister spokesperson Andrea Czopp last week. “Once we have an official document, we will be able to provide further information on the details of the project as well as updated renderings.”

Hamister’s company, the Hamister Group, was awarded its incentive package from the state after being selected as the preferred developer by USA Niagara Development Corp. — the state’s local economic development arm — in February of 2012, the result of a process that remains unexplained to this day.

There was no open bidding, and now – more than two years later — there’s no hotel. While it was reported that several other proposals were in the running to scoop up the cash and real estate windfall, their actual proposals, and why they were rejected, were never made public.

Hamister said that the project would spur other development in the city, a frequently heard promise that every would-be developer and snake oil salesman makes when trying to wheedle money out of one or another of the many government agencies here.

“I look forward to this project being the seed for many more projects, not just by us, but by others,” Hamister said. “We can really start to make the two sides of the border a little more equal.”

Today, the downsized Hamister hotel project seems no closer to getting started than it did last year, when Hamister threatened to stalk off in a snit because of the obstructionist City Council majority led by Sam Fruscione.

What has happened to the urgency? Why was the governor willing to involve himself in local politics and use the power of his office like a bludgeon last September to ensure that the project got underway quickly but now seems to have no interest at all in forcing Hamister to live up to his promises?

This article first appeared in The Niagara Falls Reporter, and has be republished with their permission.

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